Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

$25.2 Million Settlement for Two Connecticut Prisoners Exonerated After 35 Years

by David M. Reutter

A unanimous vote by Connecticut’s House Committee on Judiciary on March 1, 2024, all but assured state lawmakers would approve an agreement made in August 2023 by state Attorney General William Tong (D) to pay a total of $25.2 million to Ralph “Ricky” Birch, 67, and Shawn Henning, 66, two longtime state prisoners exonerated in 2020 after DNA evidence proved they had no connection with the murder of Everett Carr on December 2, 1985.

Police described that crime scene as the bloodiest they had ever encountered. Carr, 65, was found dead in the home of his daughter, Evelyn Columbo, his body stabbed 27 times, including a deep five-inch wound across his neck. His jugular vein was severed. He sustained seven instances of blunt force trauma to his head. Blood splattered and smeared on the walls, reaching the ceiling. Bloody footprints were left behind, and police recovered hair samples at the scene, along with over 40 fingerprints. The foot prints were too small to belong to Birch or Henning, and none of the other evidence matched them.

In December 1985, Birch, then 18, and Henning, then 17, “were troubled and vulnerable teenagers, not sophisticated criminal masterminds,” Birch’s civil rights complaint recalled. As pressure mounted to solve the case, police “chose Ricky Birch and Shawn Henning,” the complaint continued, “to take the fall for the murder of Everett Carr.” Police claimed Birch incriminated himself during an interview—a remark conspicuously absent from police reports that went unmentioned for a year. Police also “fed details of the crime to jailhouse informants” who “falsely claim[ed]” Ricky confessed. They further allegedly suppressed evidence that disputed their theory.

But the most damaging testimony came from forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee. He testified that blood on a towel in the bathroom at the scene had been linked to Birch. It was later proven the Lee never tested the towel and that there was no blood on it. But Lee also testified that it was possible for the perpetrators to commit the bloody crime without getting blood on them. Jurors convicted the men of Carr’s murder.

Four decades later, DNA evidence testing excluded Birch and Henning from the crime scene. Blood belonging to a perpetrator was found in at least four items of evidence. But it is still unknown to whom the blood belongs. Based on that, the Connecticut Supreme Court tossed Birch and Henning’s convictions on June 14, 2019, and ordered a new trial. On remand, the state conceded there was insufficient evidence to retry the case. In state Superior Court on July 10, 2020, all charges were dismissed.

Birch and Henning sued Lee, eight police investigators and the Town of New Milford. Though DNA technology was not available in 1985, plenty of other exonerating evidence was. As their complaint noted, “police thoroughly searched Ricky and Shawn’s bodies, their clothing, their property, the car Ricky slept in, and the area where the car was found,” yet “[n]one of Carr’s blood, hair, or DNA was ever found in any of those places.”

In July 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut granted summary judgment against Lee, finding no evidence that he ever tested the towel. Tong’s office then reached the settlement with Birch and Henning, paying $12.6 million to each, inclusive of costs and fees for their attorneys from Kirschbaum Law Group, LLC in Manchester and Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP in New York City. See: Birch v. Town of New Milford, USDC (D. Conn.), Case Nos. 3:20-cv-01790 and 3:20-cv-01792.  

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Birch v. Town of New Milford