LA Times

Judge frees Oklahoma man facing execution
Police misconduct tainted the case against a convict who did 22 years.
By Henry Weinstein
, Times Staff Writer

May 12, 2007

A judge in Oklahoma City on Friday dismissed murder charges against a man who was sentenced to death three times in the 1982 slaying of a teenager, convictions that were based largely on testimony from a police department chemist who was fired for fraud and misconduct in 2001.
Curtis McCarty
Curtis McCarty

Oklahoma District Court Judge Twyla Mason Gray ruled that the case against Curtis E. McCarty was tainted by the actions of former Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, whose work has been called into question in a host of other death penalty cases.

Citing the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona vs. Youngblood, Gray said she was dismissing the charges because Gilchrist had acted in "bad faith," and "most likely did destroy or intentionally lose" hair that was crucial evidence in McCarty's trial in the 1982 stabbing and strangling of Pamela Kaye Willis.

According to several people at Friday's hearing, Gray said she still thought that McCarty may have been involved in the murder but that the law required her to throw the case out.

Innocence Project attorney Colin Starger, who has represented McCarty since 2003, said, "Every piece of evidence in this case, including evidence [that] was used improperly to secure convictions, now shows Curtis McCarty's innocence."

Free after nearly 22 years behind bars, McCarty said Friday that he had been out for "only a few hours" and had not "had time to digest" everything that occurred: "I am happy not just for myself but for my family and all the people who worked so hard" for his release.

"But for the Innocence Project, Judge Gray would not have done what she did today. I don't think she had cause to take a dig at me, but I join her in her condemnation of Gilchrist," McCarty said in an interview.

McCarty was first convicted of the murder and sentenced to death in 1986. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the verdicts, saying that Dist. Atty. Robert H. Macy Sr. had acted deplorably during the trial, and that Gilchrist had omitted key information from her forensic reports.

McCarty was convicted and sentenced to death again in 1989. That conviction was upheld on appeal but the death sentence was reversed. A new penalty phase trial was conducted in 1996, and McCarty was sentenced to death a third time.

Five years later, serious questions surfaced about Gilchrist's conduct in many cases, including that of Jeffrey T. Pierce. In May 2001, Pierce was freed from an Oklahoma prison after serving 15 years for a rape that DNA tests ultimately showed he did not commit.

A federal appeals court overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of rape and murder in August 2001, concluding that jurors might have relied on Gilchrist's testimony.

Gilchrist was fired in September 2001 for allegedly performing shoddy work and giving false or misleading testimony, including 23 cases in which she helped send men to death row. Eleven of those defendants have been executed, according to the Innocence Project.

State and federal investigations of Gilchrist's work in more than 1,100 cases unearthed more problems, including her performance in McCarty's case.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said McCarty's was "one of the worst examples of law enforcement misconduct" in his experience.
Robert H. Macy, who was the Oklahoma County District Attorney for 21 years, prosecuted McCarty in both of his trials. Macy sent 73 people to death row – more than any other prosecutor in the nation – and 20 of them have been executed. Macy has said publicly that he believes executing an innocent person is a sacrifice worth making in order to keep the death penalty in the United States.

Macy committed misconduct in the manner that he prosecuted McCarty and presented the case to the jury. His misconduct was compounded when he relied on Joyce Gilchrist, a police lab analyst who falsified test results and hid or destroyed evidence in order to help secure McCarty’s convictions. Gilchrist was the lead forensic analyst in 23 cases that ended in death sentences (11 of the defendants in those cases have been executed).

“This is by far one of the worst cases of law enforcement misconduct in the history of the American criminal justice system,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Bob Macy has said that executing an innocent person is a risk worth taking – and he came very close to doing just that with Curtis McCarty.”

On Friday, Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. David Prater said he thought Gray's dismissal of charges against McCarty "was the correct decision," even though he is not convinced that McCarty is innocent.

"Because of the checks and balances in the justice system, the judge has the duty to make sure a person is afforded a fair trial…. With her ruling that potentially exculpatory evidence had been destroyed by Gilchrist, Judge Gray said he could never get a fair trial," Prater said.

The Times could not reach Gilchrist on Friday.

henry.weinstein@latimes.com


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