Associated Press

Jan. 26, 2007       

Exoneration sought for two killers in crime lab review

THOMAS J. SHEERAN
Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Two men convicted of beating an elderly woman to death should be cleared or given new trials because of shoddy police crime laboratory work by an analyst accused of missing blood stains in the investigation, a legal advocacy group said Friday.

The Innocence Project, which works on behalf of criminals whose convictions have been challenged as unfair, said the crime lab review prompted by the exoneration of an accused rapist disclosed serious problems with at least a half-dozen cases, including those of the two men. The group may challenge the other convictions.

The project asked a court to throw out the convictions of Thomas Siller, 51, and Walter Zimmer, 50. Both are serving long prison terms.

The two were convicted in the June 1997 beating of a 74-year-old Cleveland woman, Alice Zolkowski, and ransacking her home.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said the Innocence Project materials were under review.

According to the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University, the same laboratory technician whose work was cited in the exoneration of a convicted rapist was instrumental in the convictions of Siller and Zimmer.

Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project co-director, by coincidence outlined the defense motions filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court during a break Friday in a Case Western Reserve University law school seminar on prosecutor ethics.

According to the Innocence Project, forensic analyst Joseph Serowik either lied about or failed to conduct thorough blood tests on the clothing of an eyewitness who said Siller and Zimmer had beaten the woman into a coma. Serowik's testimony amounted to perjury on behalf of the state's case, Scheck said.

Instead of a single bloodstain from the victim on the pants of eyewitness Jason Smith as Serowik testified, there were at least seven, according to Scheck. Scheck said the finding called into question the prosecution claim that Siller and Zimmer and not Smith had beat the victim.

Scheck said the sloppy work by Serowik was deliberate and reflected a pattern in Serowik's career.

Smith, 37, struck a deal with prosecutors and got three years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated burglary.

Assistant Prosecutor Rick Bombik said Serowik's incompetence was exposed by the defense in Siller's murder trial. Siller and Zimmer were convicted of attempted murder and later were convicted of murder when the comatose victim died.

Serowik worked for two years teaching forensic science at Youngstown State University after he was fired by the city of Cleveland but his contract wasn't renewed last May, the university said. A campus review said Serowik hadn't informed recruiters about his firing in Cleveland.

Serowik could not be reached for comment. A phone listed under his name in Cleveland has been disconnected and there is no listing under that name in Youngstown.

The Innocence Project's selection of the case angered assistant Prosecutor Rick Bombik, who handled the case.

"The totality of the evidence in this case, no one is going to walk away and say Tom Siller and Walter Zimmer are innocent. That's laughable," he said. "They were bilking her out of her life savings to feed their crack cocaine habit. All you're trying to do here is spring two demons from hell."

He said Serowik's incompetence already was exposed in the second trial when he re-examined the eyewitness' pants and found a blood drop.

"So they did more testing and they found six or seven more micro-specks. You would have expected the person who did the beating to have a lot more blood on him," Bombik said. "The clothes should have been painted red with the victim's blood."

Michael Green, 41, whose 1988 conviction in a rape and robbery in Cleveland were overturned in 2001 based on DNA genetic evidence, appeared with Scheck and said he hoped the outside review of the Cleveland laboratory work would benefit anyone wrongly convicted.

"I'm glad the audit went through," Green said. The $1.6 million settlement of his civil lawsuit included a provision that 17 years of work of the police laboratory get an outside review directed by a former federal prosecutor.

Green said he was surprised at the audit findings. "I didn't expect too much to come about," he said. Since the Cleveland audit, similar efforts have been launched in Houston, Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana.

Scheck also mentioned reviews in Boston and New York and by the FBI involving laboratory work or police techniques including fingerprinting.

Michael Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department official hired as the special investigator, issued an independent report in 2005 that said the Houston crime lab for 15 years employed workers with inadequate resources and support. The employees failed proficiency tests, botched analyses and taught themselves scientific technique by reading books at home, Bromwich's report said.

Earlier this week, Jeffrey Todd Pierce, who spent 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, settled with Oklahoma City for $4 million over botched testimony by a police chemist.

Pierce was released from prison in 2001 based on DNA testing that showed sperm and hairs taken from the scene of a rape at an apartment complex could not have been his.

The police chemist, Joyce Gilchrist, has denied wrongdoing. She was fired in 2001 after investigations of her work in a number of cases, including some death row convictions. An FBI report found that Gilchrist misidentified hair and fibers in at least six criminal cases and gave testimony that went beyond what her science showed.

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