If you're a regular visitor to these pages, I hope you're not getting bored with the rants about false convictions. There are so many.
Joyce Gilchrist is a "forensic chemist" with a police crime laboratory in Oklahoma City. In 1986, she testified at the trial of Jeff Pierce who was charged with rape and robbery. Her testimony was decisive: she said that hairs found on the victim were "microscopically consistent" with samples taken from Pierce. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He served 15 before DNA testing-- considered far more reliable than microscopic hair analysis-- proved he could not have been the perpetrator.
You have to give credit to the police department here, where it is due. After an appeals court overturned several cases in which her testimony was pivotal, the police department ordered a review of other cases in which she had testified. (This may sound like something that should be automatic, but it isn't. It is amazing how many police departments and prosecuting attorneys will refuse to admit they might have been wrong.)
At this stage, at least, that's the way it's supposed to work: the police are supposed to find out what actually happened. In the Pierce case, it looks like they simply picked a likely suspect (he happened to be working as a landscaper in the area in which the crime was committed) and then tried to muster the evidence. Gilchrist was regarded as a prosecution-friendly witness, who was likely to provide the police with evidence that would confirm their gut feelings about the suspect. She rarely testified for the defense, which should tell you something. She is supposed to be a scientist. She is supposed to testify for whichever side happens to have good science with them. If the science appears to always favor the prosecution, you have to ask yourself a few questions...
An FBI specialist, according to People Magazine, had problems figuring out what led Gilchrist to draw the conclusions she did about Pierce's hair samples. In other words, she either grossly exaggerated or lied about the similarities. Do you want to know how many other cases she was involved with? Hundreds. No wait. 1,800! I'm not kidding. And an FBI chemist who reviewed four of Gilchrist's cases said that in all four of them, hair or fibers had been misidentified. Twenty-three of the cases in which Gilchrist's testimony played a part involved capital crimes. Eleven of the defendants have already been executed. In some cases, the police have destroyed the evidence, so we'll never know if they were really guilty or not.
In another case, she testified that an FBI test of a semen sample could not exclude Alfred Mitchell from suspicions of rape, sodomy, and murder. In fact, the FBI lab clearly asserted that the one thing the sample did do was exclude Mitchell. He was convicted anyway, on Gilchrist' "expert" testimony. In 1999, a federal district judge threw out the conviction because of her "errors".
And another: Robert Miller was convicted of raping and murdering two elderly women, again, largely on the basis of Gilchrist's "expert" testimony that hair samples found on the victims matched his. After seven years on death row, DNA evidence fingered someone else. As if that wasn't enough, DNA evidence pointed to a man Gilchrist had explicitly cleared of the crime.
Even more disturbing: the police had the FBI's exculpatory evidence in their hands before they brought Mitchell to trial, and did not provide the defense with copies of the reports. This is your police department, friends. These are the people in charge of enforcing the law. The appeal judge stated that the "State's blatant withholding of unquestionably exculpatory evidence is absolutely indefensible."
Gilchrist is on "paid administrative leave". Did you know that the laws are written in such a way as to release the police and prosecution from all potential liability for financial compensation for the wrongly convicted? So what does Pierce get for his 15 years in prison? Unless the state gets generous voluntarily, nothing.
The case of Malcolm Rent Johnson is fascinating. He was convicted in 1982 of the rape and murder or Ura Alma Thompson, who was 76 years old. Johnson was executed in January, 2000.
The police found many of Thompson's missing possessions in Johnson's room. Johnson claimed that he received the stolen goods from a friend. Gilchrist testified that hairs found on the victim were compatible with Johnson's hair, and that fibers from a shirt the police took from his apartment were similar to fibers found on the body, and that the semen found in the victim was compatible with Johnson's blood type. When the police confronted Johnson with the semen evidence, Johnson, according to police, said that was impossible because he hadn't ejaculated.
Either Johnson was a complete fool-- and victims of prosecution misconduct seem to be disproportionately poor and uneducated-- or he meant to say that he wasn't the one who raped Thompson and therefore couldn't have been the one who ejaculated. It's a strange statement to make, but even stranger that the police would regard a statement like that as believable enough to be incriminating but not believable enough to contradict Gilchrist's findings that the semen matched Johnson's blood type. If he inadvertently told the truth-- that he raped Thompson but didn't ejaculate-- then the police should offer that as evidence that he committed the rape and murder, and Gilchrist's evidence should have been thrown out. Instead, the police had it both ways. He is guilty because he told the truth when he said he had sex with Johnson but didn't ejaculate, and besides, the semen was compatible with his blood type. Or, did Johnson receive the stolen goods from a friend who actually committed the robbery and rape and then "tipped" the police off to Johnson?
Gilchrist isn't the only incompetent police expert around. In Randall County, Texas, a forensic pathologist named Ralph Erdmann was convicted in 1994 of falsifying evidence on at least six occasions, including at least one capital case. In that one case, an off-duty police officer, James D. Mitchell, approached a car that had skidded off the road and was shot by one of the occupants who claimed that he fired in self-defense. No one disputes who shot who, but the question of whether it is a capital offense hinges on whether the defendant, Randal Wayne Hafdahl, believed he was being threatened or not, and that determination was based on Erdmann's evidence.
In New York, a former detective named Michael S. Race has made it his mission to re-examine some old criminal cases. He is already responsible for five men being released from prison, including Anthony Faison and Charles Shepherd, who were charged with the murder of a cabby. Some say that Race is trying to assuage his own guilt-- he was involved in some these questionable cases as a homicide detective in Brooklyn. In some of these cases, a rather shady witness provided the only compelling evidence. It is clear that the police and district attorneys were derelict in their obligations to ensure that such witnesses were reliable and credible. It didn't matter: the juries bought it. Innocent men went to jail. In the "tough on crime era", few people cared.
What all of this means is that the criminal justice system in the U.S. is in a crisis. There is a drug crisis and a medical crisis and an education crisis. Why doesn't anyone step up and announce that they will make criminal justice an issue in the next campaign? Because conventional political wisdom is that Americans want politicians and judges to be "tough on crime". But I'll bet that a lot of Americans are slowly becoming convinced that there is a difference between "toughness" and fairness.
Copyright © 2001 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.