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Forensic expert under criminal investigation.

Her testimony figured into 23 capital cases on Oklahoma

Prosecuting attorneys in Oklahoma City relied on Joyce Gilchrist's scientific testimony for 13 years to fortify their cases. Now she is being investigated and may face criminal charges. A police laboratory forensic expert, Gilchrist was involved in more than 3,000 cases, some of them involving the death penalty, including that of Mark David Fowler, a Catholic who was executed despite the pleas of both Oklahoma bishops (NCR, Jan. 19).

Gilchrist is the subject of an investigation ordered by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. The governor on April 30 called for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to review all criminal convictions in which the police chemist had conducted forensic tests and provided testimony.

Keating called on his state agency to review every capital and non-capital case "that this woman [Gilchrist] touched to make sure every case is a case of integrity and every conviction was righteous and legally and scientifically sound." Keating said the issue involved not only convicts on death row but also non-capital cases in which people have been in prison for as long as 10 or 15 years. "The possibility that an innocent person has spent years in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction is "completely, utterly, irredeemingly unacceptable," Keating said. "If that is the case, it is a horror."

Gilchrist's credibility was denounced last month by a Federal Bureau of Investigation report, which found that she had given improper courtroom testimony or wrongly identified evidence in at least five of eight cases the agency has reviewed so far.

The case that prompted the investigation involved a man convicted of rape 16 years ago after Gilchrist, using hair samples, linked him to the crime. Recent DNA testing determined that semen taken from the crime scene did not match the man's. The FBI report also challenged her findings on the hair. Officials say the convict, Jeffrey Pierce, could soon be released.

It was Gilchrist's hair analysis that put Mark Fowler at the scene of the murder for which he was executed in January.

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined in calls for an investigation into Gilchrist's role in criminal trials. The FBI is conducting a further investigation into her activities and testimony.

Gov. Keating did not move to postpone the execution of Marilyn Plantz on May 1 despite a news report that Gilchrist had provided testimony during her trial. Keating noted that Plantz had admitted her involvement in the 1988 murder of her husband.

But James Bednar, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, quoted in a New York Times article May 2, said there is no basis "at this point" to believe that anyone has been wrongfully executed because of Gilchrist's testimony. But he said the investigation is long overdue and reflects systemic problems in the Oklahoma criminal justice system. His organization has asked the state legislature for $1 million to look into each case where Gilchrist provided testimony or handled evidence.

"For 25 years, people have been testifying with a degree of certainty that did not exist," Bednar said. "Ms. Gilchrist touched 3,000 cases. This is a mammoth deal. We may find 200 in which we feel her testing made the difference. Who knows? It's going to be very expensive, time consuming and laborious."

Gilchrist was hired by the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1980 as a crime laboratory chemist. The lab covers the city and five surrounding counties. She had been trained at the FBI academy and at the Serological Research Institute in Emeryville, Calif. She has had a supervisory position at the lab since 1994. Her lawyer, Melvin Hall, said his client, who has been on administrative leave since March, "stands behind her work and in the end will be totally vindicated."

She has faced controversy before. In 1987, the chief forensic scientist at the regional crime laboratory in Kansas City, Mo., complained about her to a professional organization, the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists. According to The New York Times, the association warned Gilchrist "to distinguish personal opinion from opinions based upon facts derived from scientific evidence," but declined to censure or discipline her.

Another professional association, the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction, expelled her for unethical behavior, according to an internal police memorandum leaked to the local media. Her work has also been criticized by state and federal judges. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the murder conviction of Curtis Edward McCarty, partly because they said Gilchrist testified beyond her expertise.

Douglas Parr, a board member of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told The New York Times that an extensive examination is needed on the 23 capital cases connected with Gilchrist. "We are very worried at this point in that her testimony may have been used to influence juries to impose the death penalty on somebody who perhaps was not deserving of the death penalty," he said.

Mark Andrew Fowler, son of Catholic parents and nephew of a Tulsa priest, died by lethal injection on Jan. 23. According to a source close to the case, testimony from Gilchrist put Fowler at the scene of the murder of three store employees in a robbery. Janet Chesley, Fowler's appellate attorney, said the visual hair analysis method Gilchrist used is "unreliable."

The nephew of Fr. Gregory Gier, rector at Tulsa's Holy Family Cathedral, Fowler received extensive support from the two dioceses of Oklahoma, a state that is 4 percent Catholic. Last June Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran of the Oklahoma City archdiocese asked for a five-year moratorium on executions in the state. He invited all Catholics to join him in committing themselves "to pursuing justice without vengeance." Beltran also testified at the prisoner's last hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. The board denied clemency in a 4-0 vote. Beltran was joined in his opposition to the death penalty by Bishop Edward Slattery of the Tulsa diocese in an open letter to the governor and citizens of the state.

Gier was allowed to give Mark his last rites and touch Mark as he was executed. More than 200 people gathered to pray with members of the Fowler family and friends during Mark's execution.
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Article Details
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Author:HEFFERN, RICH
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U7OK
Date:May 11, 2001
Words:1034
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