Forensic Expert under Criminal Investigation

Article excerpt

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. …