Police Chemist may have Destroyed Evidence in Death Row Case
By Associated Press
April 20, 2004
Disgraced Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist doctored trial evidence and may have destroyed hair samples that could have exonerated a man now on death row, according to a confidential police memo obtained by The Associated Press.
The memo said Gilchrist not only altered her own case notes, but "there is compelling circumstantial evidence" that she "either intentionally lost or destroyed" crime-scene hairs used to convict Curtis Edward McCarty of murder so the evidence could not be retested.
The Oklahoma City Police Department memo, written by then-Deputy Chief Bill Citty to then-Chief M.T. Berry, is dated Sept. 21, 2001, and details 14 days of deliberations and testimony heard by a department review board.
The board, consisting of two police chemists and three high-ranking officials, recommended Gilchrist be fired. Four days later, she was.
Citty and Berry declined to comment on the board's findings. Gilchrist, who has sued various city officials for wrongful termination, has long said she is innocent, but declines interviews. Her attorney did not return calls from the AP.
Her dismissal followed disclosures she helped send at least two innocent men to prison during her 21-year tenure as a forensic chemist and prosecution witness in hundreds of cases. Those men were released after DNA testing proved they were not guilty.
Since she was fired, two secret criminal investigations - one by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the other by the FBI - have produced no charges. Officials from both agencies refused to comment, saying the probes are confidential.
The police memorandum details alleged wrongdoing by Gilchrist in 11 cases from the 1980s. The most significant misconduct alleged was in the McCarty case, and those findings are the crux of McCarty's latest appeal of his conviction in the 1982 murder of a young woman, sources familiar with the case told the AP on condition of anonymity.
Attorneys on both sides are prohibited from discussing details of that appeal because a federal appellate court, at the request of Oklahoma City officials, has taken the unusual step of sealing the case. The city cited the confidentiality of personnel records in its request.
Detailing Gilchrist's alleged misconduct in the McCarty case, the memo revealed that her case notes - which she testified to at McCarty's trials - had recently been sent to a document examiner at the Tulsa Police Department for independent review.
The results, the memo said, showed that Gilchrist "wrote over" her original notes from 1983 that concluded McCarty's hair was "not consistent" with strands found at the crime scene - meaning he was excluded as a suspect.
Three years later, McCarty was tried for murder. During that trial, the memo said, she testified from her altered notes, saying McCarty's hairs were consistent with strands found on the body of 18-year-old Pamela Willis, the daughter of a police officer.
The Tulsa police analysis indicates "Gilchrist wrote over the word `not' to reflect the word `show,'" the memo states. In another instance, Gilchrist added the word "completely" underneath the word "not," the memo says.
"The impact of this alteration was that McCarty was left in as a potential suspect rather than excluded," the memo says. "The Board has tremendous concerns and suspicions concerning Gilchrist's analysis of this case."
McCarty, who had a prior conviction for statutory rape, consistently declared he was innocent of the Willis murder. He submitted hair samples to police in 1983 along with those of several other acquaintances of the victim who had seen her in the hours before her death.
His first conviction, in 1986, was overturned by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled Gilchrist's hair evidence testimony was riddled with error and personal opinions.
Two subsequent trials, with evidence again submitted by Gilchrist, resulted in convictions and death sentences. His third appeal is now before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
The review board's finding that Gilchrist may have destroyed evidence is based on her written assertion to prosecutors in 2000 that she had possession of the McCarty hair evidence and that enough remained for DNA testing.
Two months later, the memo said, she wrote to her supervisor that evidence was missing. According to the memo, Gilchrist wrote that she discovered the evidence was gone when McCarty's attorneys came to her office to examine it.
The memo said Gilchrist's misconduct in other cases included incorrect hair and fiber analysis, withholding evidence from defense attorneys, and failing to analyze evidence before trial.
One example concerns the attempted-murder conviction of Harold "Gene" Weatherly. Gilchrist wrongly testified that fibers on his tennis shoe came from the victim's house, and mistook an animal hair for a human hair, the memo said.
Weatherly served 15 years in prison and was released. He asked the governor for a pardon and was denied.
The state, which separately reviewed hundreds of cases based on Gilchrist's testimony, has recommended 196 be re-examined. Details of that recommendation are also confidential; the recommendation now sits in the office of state Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
He has not decided whether to pursue charges against Gilchrist, according to prosecutor Jennifer Miller, who worked on the McCarty case. Asked when a decision might be made, Miller replied, "I can't comment on that."
In 2001, the FBI subpoenaed evidence from 10 Gilchrist cases - nine of them involving defendants already executed - for a federal grand jury investigation of possible civil rights violations.
"I can't understand what's taking so long. I can't understand why they haven't charged her," said defense attorney Garvin Isaacs, who represented Robert Lee Miller Jr., sentenced to death in 1988.
Miller was convicted of murdering and raping two elderly women, based in part on Gilchrist's testimony that crime-scene hairs were consistent with Miller's hair samples. He spent 10 years in prison. He was released after DNA analysis showed the hairs found near the victims belonged to another suspect.
The secrecy surrounding McCarty's case and the two criminal probes of Gilchrist's career has demoralized families of those convicted, who accuse investigators of dragging their feet to avoid more embarrassing prisoner releases. More disturbing, they say, is the question of whether innocent men were executed.
"I'm just afraid it's going to be one those hush-hush things," said Jim Fowler, whose son, Mark, was executed three years ago for a murder conviction that relied on Gilchrist's hair comparisons. "It's the best-kept secret in Oklahoma City."
||Truth in Justice