Imperfect Justice 

Monday, May 28, 2001

FOR THE LATEST exhibit of the fallibility of the judicial system, we turn to Joyce Gilchrist, a chemist with the Oklahoma City Police Department who has worked on more than 3,000 cases. Oklahoma has executed 11 persons based at least in part on her work. Twelve more remain on death row. Yet in recent weeks the FBI labs have been sharply critical of her performance in a sample of cases, accusing her of offering testimony "beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science" in several. Jeffrey Pierce recently was released from prison for a rape he didn't commit; Ms. Gilchrist's testimony at his trial had authoritatively linked his hair to samples found at the scene, a claim DNA testing later belied. A comprehensive review of Ms. Gilchrist's work is now underway. 

The alleged problems with Ms. Gilchrist's work are not new. According to the Daily Oklahoman, a professional association criticized her as far back as 1987. State and federal courts have overturned convictions on grounds that her testimony went beyond what was knowable scientifically. Last year she was expelled from another professional group. Ms. Gilchrist says she will be vindicated by the investigation. But questions about her work serve as a reminder of the grave harm that a single person in the criminal justice apparatus can cause -- either through malice or incompetence -- if the rest of the system offers little more than malign neglect.

The same lesson should be drawn from other recently exposed failures of the justice system. Mistakes happen. Something as complex as the criminal justice system will inevitably fail sometimes. Forensic science is a powerful tool for accuracy in convictions when it is rigorous, and an equally powerful tool for inaccuracy at trial when it is not. Juries are powerfully moved by biological evidence, and scientists testify with an authority that other witnesses lack. That means that crime labs -- like the quality of lawyers provided to defendants -- must be improved and accountability built in.

It also argues for rigorous post-conviction review. The death penalty is the ultimate affront to the notion that some measure of justice, however late, eventually can be restored when a case goes awry. Oklahoma authorities say they are confident that nobody has been wrongly executed as a result of Ms. Gilchrist's testimony. We hope they are lucky enough to be right. 

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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