Dallas Morning News
October 22, 2001
Chemist's Errors Stir Fear: Did Oklahoma Execute Innocent?
By Arnold Hamilton
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In a 21-year career, Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist was a prosecutor's dream: She delivered supportive lab analysis and convincing testimony that helped send hundreds to prison – at least 23 people to death row.
Ms. Gilchrist may turn out to be a prosecutor's worst nightmare: So much of her work was questioned by appeals courts and forensics experts that she was suspended and fired. Investigators are digging through 1,197 of her cases to see whether anyone is behind bars because of false or misleading testimony.
And now – in a year when Oklahoma leads the nation in carrying out the death penalty, and with suspect convictions being reviewed even beyond the Gilchrist cases – some are pondering the unthinkable: Has Oklahoma executed the innocent?
"I think there's a real concern that that has happened," said Jim Bednar, a former state and federal prosecutor and state judge who now heads the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. "I think we've got to ensure that nobody else gets executed until we take a thorough look at this."
Ms. Gilchrist has denied wrongdoing. Her lawyer, Melvin Hall, describes her as a "scapegoat," noting she "had absolutely not a single piece of negative paper in her 21-year personnel file." Ms. Gilchrist declined to be interviewed.
Defense attorneys and forensic scientists questioned Ms. Gilchrist's work – particularly hair and fiber analysis – as early as the mid-1980s. Earlier this year, an FBI review of eight cases revealed significant flaws in her analysis. Since then, state lawmakers provided $650,000 for DNA testing, and Gov. Frank Keating ordered the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to review all criminal cases involving Ms. Gilchrist.
Already, the state task force – including the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the attorney general and the indigent defense system – has targeted for independent DNA testing two death row cases involving Ms. Gilchrist's work.
The state crime lab has completed an initial review of 817 files from Ms. Gilchrist's cases, turning up problems significant enough in about 16 percent of them – 130 – to warrant a more extensive review.
Although Ms. Gilchrist's work is the primary target of the state task force, Oklahoma's problems with pre-DNA forensic science have shadowed other cases as well, including some handled by the OSBI itself.
Just three weeks ago, a judge in Wagoner County threw out the murder conviction of Albert Wesley Brown, who served 18 years of a life sentence. A former OSBI chemist testified that hairs found at the scene belonged to Mr. Brown, but recent DNA tests proved otherwise.
Separately, the Oklahoma City Police Department has asked the task force to review as many as 10 cases handled by a second former police chemist, the late Janice Davis. In one such case, Ms. Davis used hair and fiber analysis to link Dewey George Moore to a 1984 murder. The task force ordered DNA tests to determine whether Mr. Moore has wrongly spent 16 years on death row.
In 1999, two men who had spent 12 years in prison – one on death row – were released after DNA tests cleared them in an Ada rape-murder. The cases had been reviewed by the New York-based Innocence Project.
"I'm very concerned that there may be anybody serving time or facing execution who may be actually innocent of the charges," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a former Muskogee County prosecutor. "And that's why I'm very interested in reviewing all of these cases."
Mr. Edmondson, however, opposes a blanket moratorium on executions, similar to one ordered by Illinois Gov. George Ryan after he learned that 13 death-row inmates had been exonerated since 1987.
"Our office determined nearly two years ago we would not seek an execution date if there remained unanswered questions of guilt or innocence that could be resolved with a forensic test," Mr. Edmondson said. "I think that's a far more appropriate approach than a blanket moratorium that would include cases where DNA is not even a factor."
The questions arising in Oklahoma are similar to concerns raised in other states in recent years. Since the death penalty resumed in 1976, 98 death row inmates across the country – including seven in Texas – have been cleared by new evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 11 of those cases DNA testing played a role.
In that time, 736 people have been executed nationwide.
Illinois is the only state to have declared a moratorium, but efforts have been, or are being, made to get moratoriums in 36 of the 38 states with the death penalty, according to the American Bar Association.
In Texas, a moratorium proposal died after making it out of committee in this year's legislative session. The state's death penalty system, which has executed more people than any other, came under harsh scrutiny last year during the presidential campaign of Gov. George Bush.
The execution pace has slowed in Texas this year – to 13 so far, compared with 40 in 2000.
In Oklahoma, the 12 pending death row cases that Ms. Gilchrist worked on are being reviewed first by the state task force, according to OSBI spokeswoman Kym Koch. Those with sentences of life without parole will be reviewed next, followed by those with lesser sentences. The 11 Gilchrist cases in which inmates have already been executed will be considered last, if at all.
"There's some opposition to our testing people already executed," said Mr. Bednar, the indigent defense system chief. "I think it would be a horrible mistake for us not to do that."
Some defense attorneys are convinced that such testing would prove that shoddy, possibly corrupt science was used to secure convictions.
"The prosecutors and the police get the white-hat syndrome – that they know what's best for society," said defense attorney Steve Presson, a former Norman, Okla., police officer. "In doing so, the end justifies the means."
Complaints about Ms. Gilchrist's work arose while former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy was the chief prosecutor. Mr. Macy retired early in late June and could not be reached for comment, but he earlier defended Ms. Gilchrist.
Ms. Gilchrist joined the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1980 as a crime lab chemist, trained at the FBI academy in Quantico, Va., and the Serological Research Institute in Emeryville, Calif. She was the Civilian Employee of the Year in 1985.
Two years later, she was the target of a complaint to the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists, filed by John T. Wilson, the chief forensic scientist in the Kansas City, Mo., regional crime laboratory. Mr. Wilson asserted that Ms. Gilchrist's testimony in four cases amounted to opinion that could not be supported by science.
The professional group declined to discipline her, but it did warn her to avoid mixing "personal opinions" and "opinions based upon facts derived from scientific evidence."
Ms. Gilchrist was promoted in 1994 to supervisor. According to a Police Department memo in mid-January, she continued to have problems with professional organizations: She was expelled from the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction for "ethical violations."
Chemist defends work
In an interview last spring, Ms. Gilchrist told Time, "I worked hard, long, and consistently on every case. I always based my opinion on scientific findings.
"I feel comfortable with the conclusions I drew."
The courts weren't so certain.
For instance, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in 1988 overturned the murder conviction of Curtis Edward McCarty, ruling in part that Ms. Gilchrist testified beyond her expertise. Mr. McCarty was retried and convicted again in the 1982 murder. Even so, the state task force believes the case is ripe for independent DNA testing.
In another case, a federal judge in 1999 in Oklahoma City overturned the rape conviction of Alfred Brian Mitchell, ruling that Ms. Gilchrist's testimony was "terribly misleading, if not false." Mr. Mitchcell's murder conviction and death sentence were upheld, but a federal appeals court this year vacated the death sentence, citing Ms. Gilchrist's testimony.
Then last May, a state judge ordered Jeffrey Todd Pierce released after he had served nearly 15 years on a rape conviction. An FBI chemist who re-examined the evidence concluded Ms. Gilchrist wrongly testified that Mr. Pierce's hair was "microscopically consistent" with the rapist's. The OSBI subsequently matched a semen sample from the crime scene with another prison inmate serving a 45-year sentence for rape and robbery.
Mr. Bednar said he believes Ms. Gilchrist's failings point to a "culture" that suggests neither prosecutors nor police "understand the function of the expert."
"It's very obvious she was not an independent arbiter of fact," he said. "If she was, this wouldn't have happened. They [police and prosecutors] basically had an advocate and not a scientist in Joyce Gilchrist. That's tragic."
Ms. Gilchrist was transferred to the police equine lab in March 2000. She was placed on paid administrative leave last February. Police Chief M.T. Berry, who requested the FBI review of her work, said the decision to terminate Ms. Gilchrist came after a police review board hearing.
Ms. Gilchrist's attorney, Mr. Hall, said she is weighing a possible legal challenge.
Meanwhile, the state task force reviewing Ms. Gilchrist's files has ordered DNA testing on two death row cases: John Michael Hooker, who was convicted in the 1987 stabbing deaths of his girlfriend and her mother; and Michael Edward Hooper, convicted in the 1993 shooting deaths of his former girlfriend and her two young children.
Once the OSBI completes its initial review of Ms. Gilchrist's cases, it will compare her scientific analysis with her testimony. Then, the attorney general's office and the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System will decide which of the cases will be selected for DNA testing. The decisions will depend largely on whether the attorneys believe Ms. Gilchrist's analysis and testimony played a significant role in the convictions – or whether other evidence was more pivotal.
Ms. Gilchrist said she is not opposed to such scientific review.
"I look forward to that.," she told CBS' 60 Minutes II in May. "I would accept responsibility if I'm wrong, but I've never intentionally done anything wrong in a case I've ever been involved in."
Staff writer Diane Jennings in Dallas contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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