By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Lana Canen had won a new trial. Then, for her, the news got better.
Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill announced Friday he was dropping a murder charge against her.
A fingerprint analysis was crucial to the case against the 53-year-old Elkhart resident — and that analysis was later determined to be flawed. Hill said Friday there is insufficient evidence to prosecute Canen.
Canen had been serving a 55-year prison sentence in connection with the murder of Helen Sailor at Waterfall High Rise Apartments in Elkhart. Sailor was slain on Thanksgiving Day in 2002.
Canen was charged as an accomplice in the murder. She and co-defendant Andrew Royer were convicted in a 2005 jury trial in Elkhart Circuit Court. Prosecutors alleged that Canen and Royer conspired to rob Sailor, and that Royer killed her during the robbery.
“It was a robbery that appeared to go wrong, if you will,” Hill said Friday.
Elkhart city police asked Dennis Chapman, a detective with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, to look at fingerprints in the Sailor homicide case. Hill said Friday that Chapman’s fingerprint examination was a centerpiece of the evidence against Canen at the 2005 trial.
Chapman testified that a fingerprint recovered from a plastic pill container found in Sailor’s home matched Canen’s left small finger. According to Hill, the testimony placed Canen inside Sailor’s apartment, and that was key to the case against her.
Cara Schaefer Wieneke, Canen’s defense attorney since 2008, told The Goshen News in a prior interview that her client has always maintained her innocence. And Canen’s legal team hired its own fingerprint examiner.
In preparation for an August post-conviction hearing, Chapman examined the fingerprint evidence.
“When Detective Chapman reviewed the information that was supplied by counsel for Ms. Canen, he was able to determine that that information was better than his information, and that he had been wrong,” Hill said.
Hill asked that Canen’s conviction be vacated, and Circuit Court Judge Terry Shewmaker did so Oct. 12. A new trial had been scheduled for Dec. 17. After prosecutors reviewed the case, Hill opted to drop the murder charge.
“Without that fingerprint evidence, we are not able to place (Canen) at the crime scene ...,” Hill said. Asked if he feels Canen was at the crime scene, the prosecutor responded, “I’m saying I can’t prove it.”
“The good news for everybody is, we don’t proceed to prosecution on theory,” Hill said. “We don’t proceed to prosecution on ‘What we thinks’ and ‘What could it be’s?’ We proceed based on evidence that we have.”
Hill said he’s concerned with how this particular case happened, and what can be done to make sure a similar situation doesn’t happen again regarding faulty information.
“As far as going forward, my only concern is that we make certain that we have people who are putting themselves in a position of testing evidence to be completely qualified and capable of doing their job,” Hill said. “And that will be the direction that all law enforcement will be getting from me.”
Royer remains incarcerated after being convicted of murder. Hill indicated Friday that the decision in the Canen case has no bearing on Royer’s.
Hill said Friday afternoon it was his understanding that Canen had been released from custody.