Daily Oklahoman
May 27, 2001

Experts Disagreed on Hair Analysis

By Diana Baldwin

An Oklahoma criminalist revealed for the first time in February that a co-worker disagreed with his laboratory findings that helped send two innocent men to prison in 1988, The Oklahoman has learned.

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation criminalist Melvin R. Hett disclosed 37 pages of laboratory notes Feb. 9, the first day he gave testimony in a deposition in a lawsuit filed by Ronald Keith Williamson, 48, and Dennis Leon Fritz, 51, two men wrongfully convicted and released from prison after 12 years.

Hett tied Williamson and Fritz to a gruesome 1982 sex slaying in Ada with his microscopic examination of hairs found at the crime scene. DNA tests on semen and on the hairs later freed the men.

Former OSBI criminalist Susan Land, the first chemist assigned to perform the laboratory work in the case, recorded in 1983 that none of the 40 hairs she studied in her analysis belonged to Williamson or Fritz.

The lawsuit accuses Hett, a supervisor of the Enid OSBI lab, of misidentifying hairs and giving exaggerated testimony.

Hett is one of five OSBI criminalists investigating hair comparison results by embattled Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist. The FBI reported Gilchrist gave testimony “that went beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science” and misidentified hair and fibers in at least six criminal cases.

The FBI urged a review of the cases in which the 21-year police chemist’s forensic work was significant to a conviction.

Gilchrist, on paid administrative leave, defends her work.

Defense attorney Barry Scheck, a noted DNA expert, warned state Attorney General Drew Edmondson last week that Hett and the OSBI could compromise the Gilchrist investigation. He also offered assistance in Oklahoma’s investigation with expert attorneys from across the county. Scheck also is an attorney in the pending federal lawsuit.

In the Williamson and Fritz case, Hett was assigned to examine the hairs after Land had the case for eight months. Hett tied 17 hairs from the crime scene to Williamson and Fritz.

Land microscopically analyzed 40 hairs and recorded none of the hairs belonged to them.

Hett, who has been with the OSBI for 25 years, testified that a third OSBI criminalist, Ann Reed, reviewed some of the hairs before he made one of his three reports in the case. Hett argued that Land never made a report. Her handwritten notes from the case file have been given to civil attorneys.

OSBI spokeswoman Kym Koch said the bureau has “absolute confidence” in Hett’s work. Two criminalists are examining each Gilchrist case, she said.

“Mel did not testify beyond what science allows,” Koch said. “He testified the hairs were consistent and could belong to the defendant.

“That is as discriminating and definitive as you can get with hair analysis.

“It is subjective to the experience of the analysis involved. ... That is why you have the same people agree and disagree in the same laboratory.”

Norman attorney Mark Barrett said no defense or appellate attorney in 14 years was aware of Land’s findings about the hairs found at the crime scene.

“I think what happened was uncalled for and outrageous,” said Barrett, one of the civil attorneys for Williamson and Fritz. “The prosecution had a constitutional obligation to turn over evidence in the criminal trials that was favorable to the defense.”

Koch said, “There was a defense expert who agreed with Mel on hair analysis. He agreed with some of Mel’s conclusions and disagreed with some.”

The civil lawsuit is pending in federal court in Muskogee. Williamson, Fritz and Fritz’s daughter, Elizabeth, are suing Hett, the city of Ada, Pontotoc County, the state of Oklahoma and at least 19 people involved in the case.

They are asking for more than $100 million in damages.

Assistant District Attorney Wellon B. Poe is the attorney for Hett and at least nine other defendants in the civil lawsuit. Gerald Adams, the attorney general’s spokesman, refused to discuss a case in litigation.

In 1995, U.S. District Judge Frank Seay ruled Williamson deserved a new trial. One of the reasons given was that hair evidence should not have been admitted in his jury trial.

Seay ruled expert hair testimony at the trial was “irrelevant, imprecise and speculative, and its probative value was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.

“The state of the art of hair analysis has not reached a level of certainty to permit such testimony,” the judge said.

The judge did say Hett may have followed procedures accepted in the community of experts. Yet the human hair comparison results in this case were, nonetheless, scientifically unreliable, Seay said.

Barrett, while at the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, was one of the attorneys who fought to prove Williamson, a former minor-league baseball player, and Fritz, a former teacher, were wrongfully convicted 12 years earlier. Williamson, sentenced to death, came within five days of execution. Fritz was sentenced to prison for life.

They were freed April 15, 1999, after DNA tests on semen and hair cleared them of killing Ada waitress and bartender Deborah Sue Carter, 21.

Carter’s nude and battered body was found by her father in her garage apartment Dec. 8, 1982. There were fingernail polish writings on her body and apartment walls. She had been strangled and raped.

The DNA results revealed the semen belonged to Glen Gore, a classmate of the victim. Gore testified in Fritz’s trial, saying he saw Williamson with the victim the night she was killed. The transcript of Gore’s testimony was read at Williamson’s trial when Gore refused to testify.

In an appellate court affidavit, Gore was identified as the last person seen with the victim who was being pushed into a car outside an Ada nightclub.

Gore bolted from a prison work detail in Purcell after learning Williamson and Fritz were being released and prosecutors had a new suspect because of DNA evidence.

He was serving a 40-year prison sentence for kidnapping, burglary and shooting with intent to injure.

Gore got five years added to his prison sentence for escaping from the work detail. Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson did not file murder charges against Gore until April 6, two years after learning the semen and hair found at the crime scene belonged to Gore.

In ordering Williamson a new trial, Seay criticized Peterson for misleading the jury, the trial court and appellate judges by mischaracterizing the hair evidence.

Peterson claimed “microscopically consistent” equated with reliability and concluded there was a “match” between the hairs.

“While it may be possible to exclude an individual as the source of a hair sample, it is not possible to prove questioned hairs are from a particular person,” Seay said in his opinion.

Peterson, a defendant in the civil lawsuit, was not available for comment Friday.

Traditionally, hair examiners claim they can be definite about excluding individuals as the source of unknown hairs, Scheck said. DNA testing shows Hett falsely excluded the victim and Gore as potential sources of the hairs he attributed to Fritz and Williamson, Scheck said.

“These false exclusions are supposed to be impossible,” Scheck said. “Mr. Hett was so in error that of the 11 pubic hairs which he said matched Dennis Fritz, these turned out to be eight different DNA profiles.”

Copyright © 2001. Daily Oklahoman Company. All rights reserved.

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