Crime-lab worker puts cases in doubt

By Rene Stutzman
Sentinel Staff Writer

July 19, 2002

SANFORD -- A state crime-lab analyst who falsified DNA data has thrown into doubt an undetermined number of criminal cases in Florida.

Defense attorneys may begin challenging the scientific findings in every case involving John Fitzpatrick, who worked as a blood and DNA specialist at the Orlando crime laboratory of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Fitzpatrick admitted Feb. 1 to switching DNA samples and changing data in a test designed to check the quality of work at the lab, according to an internal investigative report. He was either fired or dismissed shortly after that -- the agency would not say which.

But the possible damage from his actions is just now being investigated.

Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. on Thursday abruptly halted and delayed for two weeks a DNA hearing in the case of triple-murder suspect Michael Reynolds because of the possibility that Fitzpatrick handled the evidence.

Reynolds, 39, is a laborer accused of slashing and bludgeoning to death an 11-year-old girl and her parents at their Geneva home in 1998.

Prosecutors have no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon and little evidence tying Reynolds to the crime. Still, they thought they had a powerful case: The FDLE lab in Orlando said that blood spots found near two of the victims contained Reynolds' DNA.

"Defense attorneys are going to have a field day," said Andrea Black, an Orlando lawyer who's defending Kevin Robinson, an Orange County man facing the death penalty in the slaying of a Seminole County woman.

The body of Ruth MacEachon was found bound and stabbed in the trunk of a car that had been set ablaze at the Audubon Society's Birds of Prey Center in Maitland in 1999.

DNA evidence is key in that case, Black said, because the FDLE has said the victim's DNA was found on a piece of clothing that may be tied to Robinson.

Fitzpatrick was involved in DNA analysis in that case, said Randy Means, executive director of the State Attorney's Office for the 9th Judicial Circuit -- Orange and Osceola counties.

How extensively he was involved, though, is not clear.

Fitzpatrick's involvement also has prompted prosecutors to steel themselves for the prospect of a retrial of Bruce Hunsicker, who was convicted of breaking into the home of a 10-year-old College Park girl and raping her.

Fitzpatrick did all of the blood analysis in that case, Means said.

The victim's family was "shocked" to find out about the possible DNA problems, Means said. A hearing is set for July 25.

Fitzpatrick could not be located for comment late Thursday.

No one at the FDLE was willing to discuss the matter.

The head of the crime lab, Jim McNamara, did not return a phone call. Neither did his boss, Orlando Regional Director Joyce Dawley, who was out of town. FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore in Tallahassee also could not be reached for comment.

FDLE spokeswoman Lisa Akhaven would not answer any questions about Fitzpatrick's tenure at the agency.

The only thing she would say about his tainted lab work was: "There has been no sustained finding of falsifying any evidence by the analyst in question."

It's not clear whether any judge has been asked to rule on that question.

Crime-lab scandals are not new.

In Illinois, three men have been exonerated after first being convicted, in part because of the testimony of state lab technician Pamela Fish. She's accused in lawsuits of helping falsely convict six others.

In Oklahoma, police chemist Joyce Gilchrist was fired last year after a series of allegations about shoddy, tainted work and mismanagement in the lab she ran for Oklahoma City.

Two appeals courts concluded she gave false testimony in a 1992 murder case that sent a man to death row. Three other inmates have been released because of problems with her testimony.

A report prepared by FDLE Inspector Joe Brinson concluded that Fitzpatrick swapped samples and made several false data entries in a test case in January.

It's not known why he did that.

But when challenged during questioning Feb. 1, he confessed to making changes in that one test case, according to the report.

"Fitzpatrick readily admitted that he 'altered' the computer files, re-labeled sample sheets and made a sample switch so that they would be consistent with his notes," according to the report.

Means said there are only two known cases pending in Orange or Osceola counties that involve Fitzpatrick: the College Park rapist case and the Robinson double-murder case.

He could not say how many closed cases involved Fitzpatrick.

"He's been around a long time, so how many closed cases, we don't know," Means said.

Prosecutors in the 18th Judicial Circuit -- Seminole and Brevard counties -- also could not say how many cases involved Fitzpatrick.

But the reason the judge halted Thursday's hearing was because David Baer, the FDLE senior analyst who pegged Reynolds as the likely source of DNA at the crime scene, could not say whether Fitzpatrick had been involved in any of the lab work.

During the test that Fitzpatrick admitted rigging, he changed data in a computer unbeknownst to Baer, who also was involved in the test.

"The bottom line is he flat-out cheated," said Steve Laurence, Reynolds' lawyer. "There should be a major investigation going on down there."

It's unclear what FDLE has done about Fitzpatrick's actions, including whether it notified any prosecutors or law-enforcement agencies.

Prosecutors in the Reynolds case said they knew nothing. That's why the judge delayed the hearing.

The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office stumbled across the information when a prosecutor tried to contact Fitzpatrick, who was one of her witnesses, and was told that he no longer worked at FDLE, Means said.

"We were told it was up to him to notify his cases," Means said.

Rene Stutzman can be reached at rstutzman@orlandosentinel.com or 407-324-7294.



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