When The Evidence Lies


    Joyce Gilchrist, Oklahoma City Police Department forensic chemist

    Jim Fowler has been struck twice by lightning. A retired house painter in Oklahoma City, Okla., Fowler lived through his 19-year-old son Mark's arrest in 1985 for murdering three people in a grocery-store holdup. Mark was sentenced to death. A year later Fowler's mother Anne Laura was raped and murdered, and a man named Robert Lee Miller Jr. was sentenced to die for the crime. The same Oklahoma City police department forensic scientist, Joyce Gilchrist, testified at both trials. But DNA evidence later proved she was wrong about Miller. He was released after 10 years on death row, and a man previously cleared by Gilchrist was charged with the crime. Fowler can't help wondering if Gilchrist's testimony was equally inept at the trial of his son Mark, who was executed in January.

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    Last week gave Fowler even more reason to wonder. A state judge ordered a man named Jeffrey Pierce released after serving 15 years of a 65-year sentence for rape. Gilchrist placed him at the scene of the crime, but DNA evidence proved he was not the rapist. In response, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating launched a review of every one of the thousands of cases Gilchrist touched between 1980 and 1993, starting with 12 in which death sentences were handed down. But in another 11 of her cases, the defendants have already been put to death. The state is giving the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System $725,000 to hire two attorneys and conduct DNA testing of any evidence analyzed by Gilchrist that led to a conviction. A preliminary FBI study of eight cases found that in at least five, she had made outright errors or overstepped "the acceptable limits of forensic science." Gilchrist got convictions by matching hair samples with a certainty other forensic scientists found impossible to achieve. She also appears to have withheld evidence from the defense and failed to perform tests that could have cleared defendants.

    It's a bitter convolution of fate that Gilchrist should be based in Oklahoma City, the last place one would expect to find compelling arguments against the death penalty. Her story can't help but give Oklahomans pause about the quality of justice meted out by their courts. Says Gilchrist's lawyer, Melvin Hall: "The criticism of her around here is second only to that of Timothy McVeigh." But the allegations also underscore a national problem: the sometimes dangerously persuasive power of courtroom science. Juries tend to regard forensic evidence more highly than they regard witnesses because it is purportedly more objective. But forensic scientists work so closely with the police and district attorneys that their objectivity cannot be taken for granted.

    Gilchrist told TIME in an interview last week that she's bewildered by her predicament. "I'm just one entity within a number of people who testify," she says. "They're keying on the negative and not looking at the good work I did." In her 21-year career with the Oklahoma City police, she had an unbroken string of positive job evaluations and was Civilian Police Employee of the Year in 1985. Her ability to sway juries and win convictions earned her the nickname "Black Magic." In 1994 she was promoted from forensic chemist to supervisor. Until recently, Hall says, she did not have "a bad piece of paper in her file." Now Gilchrist is on paid leave; in June she will face a two-day hearing to decide whether the police department should fire her. Meanwhile, her reputation has been shattered.

    The hammer blow came when Pierce, a landscaper who was convicted of rape in 1986, was released last week after DNA testing exonerated him. He had been found guilty despite a clean record and plausible alibi largely because of Gilchrist's analysis of hair at the crime scene. "I'm just the one who opened the door," said Pierce. "There will be a lot more coming out behind me."

    Pierce lost 15 years, his marriage and the chance to see his twin boys grow up. But some fear there were others who paid even more dearly: the 11 executed defendants. The Oklahoma attorney general has temporarily shut the gate on execution of the 12 still on death row in whose trials Gilchrist was involved. While the D.A.'s office believes that the convictions will stand, these cases will be the first to be reconsidered. Defense lawyers fear that the innocent who took plea bargains in the face of her expertise will never come to light.

    Gilchrist told TIME, "There may be a few differences because of DNA analysis," but she is confident most of her findings will be confirmed. "I worked hard, long and consistently on every case," she says. "I always based my opinion on scientific findings." She insists she didn't overstate those findings to please the D.A.'s office or secure convictions. "I feel comfortable with the conclusions I drew."

    But defense lawyers say the Gilchrist investigation is long overdue. Her work has been making colleagues queasy for years. In January 1987, John Wilson, a forensic scientist with the Kansas City police crime lab, filed a complaint about her with the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists. (The association declined to take action.) Jack Dempsey Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says his group has been fighting for an investigation "almost since the time she went to work" at the lab. "We have been screaming in the wind, and nobody has been listening."

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