Forensic scientist in Washington crime lab tied to wrongful convictions in Oregon
December 27, 2004
Seattle Post-Intelligencer By Ruth Teichroeb
A forensic scientist whose testimony helped wrongfully convict two young men of murder in Oregon has been working for the Washington State Patrol crime lab since the case unraveled nine years ago.
Forensic scientist Charles Vaughan, a veteran of the Oregon State Police crime lab, was hired by the State Patrol's Tacoma crime lab in July 1995, eight months after a judge freed Chris Boots and Eric Proctor from prison.
The two men spent eight years behind bars for a murder they didn't commit -- the June 1983 execution-style slaying of a convenience store clerk in Springfield, Ore.
Vaughan's testimony about forensic analysis of blood and gunpowder provided key physical evidence linking the pair to the crime, according to court documents and the men's attorney.
"He testified to several things which were critical in convicting these two," said Elden Rosenthal, a Portland attorney who represented Boots and Proctor in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed four months after Vaughan joined the Tacoma lab.
"It was just terrible forensic work."
Vaughan, 63, who works in the Tacoma lab's trace evidence unit, said that's an unfair assessment of his forensic analysis.
"My work was valid, fair and comprehensive, and I stand behind it now as I did then," Vaughan said in an e-mail, adding that his results were verified by a co-worker.
Vaughan's role in the high-profile Oregon case is a surprise to State Patrol crime-lab officials, according to director Barry Logan.
"He never told anybody that I've spoken to about his involvement in this case," said Barry Logan, director of the state's seven-lab system officially called the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau.
References and other background checks before his hiring turned up no mention of the case, Logan said.
Asked if the crime lab expected an applicant to come clean about such a controversy, Logan replied, "That's not the kind of thing people will volunteer in an interview."
But Vaughan said State Patrol crime lab officials were aware he'd worked on the Boots and Proctor case. He said he returned to Oregon at least twice to testify at federal court hearings after he was hired. Once, he was granted permission to drive a State Patrol vehicle.
Vaughan's link to the wrongful convictions doesn't worry Logan, who said there was no proof the forensic scientist was to blame.
"My perception is he's been a good employee," Logan said. "I'm not aware of any complaints about his work in Washington."
The state of Oregon defended Vaughan's work on the Boots and Proctor case.
"I thought what he had done was perfectly legitimate," said Lynn Larsen, an attorney for the Oregon Department of Justice who represented Vaughan and the state during the federal lawsuit. "We never conceded that his forensic work was bad."
Vaughan's ties to the Oregon case came to light after his name appeared in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigative series in July on flaws in oversight of the State Patrol crime lab.
A national accreditation team inspecting the lab in September 1999 discovered that Vaughan had made a mistake on an annual proficiency exam a year earlier. His boss didn't review his results or realize that Vaughan failed to interpret footprint evidence correctly.
The same month Vaughan bungled the test, a Thurston County prosecutor dismissed burglary charges after a defense expert concluded Vaughan mistakenly linked hairs to a suspect, according to the man's attorney, Richard Woodrow. Vaughan has defended his work on that case, saying the "subjective nature" of hair analysis can result in two forensic scientists reaching different conclusions.
A forensic expert familiar with the Boots and Proctor case recognized Vaughan's name in the P-I report and pointed out the connection.
At the criminal trials, Vaughan testified that he'd found "high-velocity blood spatter" on both men's clothes -- the type of spatter that could only have come from being in close proximity during the shooting of victim Raymond Oliver. He said a renowned blood-spatter expert had agreed with his conclusion, something the expert later denied in an affidavit.
Vaughan also told the jury he'd found two flakes of double-base smokeless gunpowder on Proctor's pants.
That was the only physical evidence tying the men to the crime. The rest of the prosecution's case relied on testimony from police informants, including two who later recanted their statements.
Experts hired by Rosenthal to re-examine the forensic evidence found problems.
"All of this forensic evidence is highly suspect and some is flatly fake," the plaintiffs alleged in court documents in May 1997.
DNA testing in 1994 on the 10-12 remaining blood particles determined that all but one particle did not match the victim, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs' experts attributed the one matching particle to contamination after Vaughan admitted during a deposition that he'd used the same ruler to scrape both the victim and suspects' clothing on the same day -- and had failed to wear gloves.
The state argued that the single matching particle was proof that Proctor was linked to the crime.
The plaintiffs also attacked Vaughan's credibility based on comments made about him by Lane County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kosygar during a deposition.
"And he (Vaughan) told me, he says, 'If you want to call an expert on blood-spatter evidence going forward, you call Jim Pex. And if you want to call an expert on it going backwards, you call me.' To my mind that just sounded like heebie-jeebie nonsense," Kosygar told the plaintiffs' attorneys.
Kosygar declined to file charges after convening a grand jury in 1984. After the election of a new district attorney, the case was reopened and assigned to a different assistant district attorney.
Vaughan analyzed the first flake of possible gunpowder in 1983. The test, which consumed the particle, was positive for oxidizers, which are found in not only gunpowder, but also fireworks, matches, fertilizer, car paint and other substances. A photo of the flake could not be located.
Vaughan discovered a second alleged gunpowder flake in 1986, this time sending half of it to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C., to verify his conclusion that it matched particles found on the victim.
"Time is of the essence now because of a lawsuit one of the suspects (Boots) is bringing against the police department for false arrest," Vaughan wrote to the FBI in a letter dated March 7, 1986.
FBI supervisor Charles Calfee testified at both criminal trials that the particle was double-base gunpowder.
A decade later, Frederic Whitehurst, then an FBI chemist and whistle-blower about the federal lab's flaws, was asked by Rosenthal to review the findings cited by Calfee. Whitehurst concluded that the data did not prove it was gunpowder. The FBI stood behind its lab analysis.
"The FBI's analysis was essentially worthless," said William Thompson, a criminology and law professor at the University of California-Irvine who has studied this case. "There wasn't a firm scientific basis for saying it was gunpowder or not."
Another explosives expert hired by the plaintiffs, Kenneth Kosanke, examined a photo and test results from the second flake found by Vaughan. Kosanke concluded in March 1997 that the particle was not gunpowder.
The case against Boots and Proctor crumbled after a tip led investigators to the real killer. Richard Kuppens, whose fingerprint was found on tape at the crime scene, confessed before killing himself in October 1994. His accomplices told police they'd never met Boots and Proctor. The next month, Boots and Proctor were set free.
The following year, Vaughan retired from a 25-year career with the Oregon crime lab and was hired almost immediately by the State Patrol.
A July 1995 hiring memo obtained through public disclosure said Vaughan's background investigation had been "successfully completed" and that he was not only a "recognized expert in blood-spatter interpretation," but also had agreed to be a lead instructor on that subject at a State Patrol academy.
"He is clearly the type of experienced scientist we need to help bring backlogs down and show the Legislature that we are committed to making the kind of progress they expect to see," said the memo from Larry Hebert, then-director of the Tacoma crime lab and now one of the lab system's top administrators.
Crime lab officials say now they didn't know Vaughan had been demoted in 1993 from director of the Eugene lab to assistant director after he failed to discipline an employee accused of falsifying test results. Vaughan admitted to the demotion during a deposition.
Vaughan had no sooner started his new job when Boots and Proctor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in November 1995 naming him a defendant as well as the state of Oregon, Lane County, the city of Springfield and two police officers.
Boots and Proctor eventually settled with the city of Springfield and two police officers for $2 million in May 1998. By then, a judge had dismissed Vaughan, the state and Lane County from the lawsuit.
In Vaughan's case, the judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove the forensic scientist had "manufactured evidence or otherwise acted with deliberate indifference" -- the standard which must be met in a civil rights case. The judge did not rule on the overall quality of Vaughan's work.
"Speculation by defense experts that I tried to manipulate the evidence in any way are unfounded," Vaughan said.
A troubling facet of this case for Thompson, the criminology professor, is that there was so little scrutiny of Vaughan's work that he moved to the Washington crime lab without raising any eyebrows.
"It may well be another Melnikoff case," Thompson said, referring to former Spokane crime lab chemist Arnold Melnikoff. "I think an audit of his (Vaughan's) work would be very much in order."
The State Patrol fired Melnikoff in March after investigating a complaint that his flawed hair-analysis testimony in a 1990 rape case helped wrongfully convict a Montana man.
Vaughan's track record on the Boots and Proctor cases should prompt more scrutiny of his work, Rosenthal said.
But Logan said he stands behind Vaughan's work.
Logan has asked for legal advice about whether the crime lab must disclose Vaughan's role in the Oregon case to defendants if he testifies in current cases.
"Based on what I do know about this case, we're not likely to change the way we are handling the work he is assigned," Logan said.
OREGON STATE POLICE CRIME LAB
July 1970: Charles Vaughan hired by Oregon State Police crime lab.
June 7, 1983: Execution-style killing of 19-year-old convenience store clerk Raymond Oliver in Springfield, Ore.
June 24, 1983: Chris Boots and Eric Proctor are arrested and released three days later without being charged.
1983: Vaughan analyzed blood evidence found on suspects' clothes and one fleck of alleged gunpowder found on Proctor's pants.
January 1984: Boots files notice of intention to sue city for false arrest.
1984: Lane County Assistant District Attorney Joe Kosygar convenes grand jury. Vaughan testifies to finding "high velocity blood spatter." No indictment.
March 1986: Vaughan seeks FBI's help in identifying second gunpowder flake on Proctor's pants; FBI confirms his finding.
May 1986: Indictment against Proctor.
Oct. 31, 1986: Proctor convicted of aggravated murder; sentenced to life in prison.
March 24, 1987: Boots convicted of aggravated murder; sentenced to life in prison.
October 1993: Vaughan demoted from director of Eugene crime lab to assistant director after failing to discipline lab worker who falsified test results.
October 1994: Tip leads to true trigger man in Oliver homicide - Ricky Kuppens, who confessed before killing himself.
November 1994: Boots and Proctor released from prison.
May 17, 1995: Vaughan retires from Oregon State Police crime lab.
July 17, 1995: Vaughan is hired at Washington State Patrol crime lab.
WASHINGTON STATE POLICE CRIME LAB
November 1995: Boots and Proctor file claim against Vaughan, state of Oregon, Lane County, city of Springfield and two police officers.
June 1997: Judge dismisses claim against Vaughan and state of Oregon.
May 1998: Boots and Proctor settle lawsuit against city of Springfield and two police officers for $2 million.
September 1998: Vaughan fails annual trace evidence proficiency test but his mistake is not discovered until a year later.
September 1998: Thurston County prosecutor dismisses burglary charge after defense expert says Vaughan mistakenly linked hairs to suspect.
Present: Vaughan works as forensic scientist in Tacoma lab.
Sources: Court documents; Washington State Patrol documents
||Truth in Justice