Crime lab crimes?


1.Evidence of conviction?

2. Labs on trial

3. Fingering the print

4. Prints, 21st century style

5. Cops in lab coats


Jeffrey Pierce was freed from his 15-year ordeal May 7. Can he put his life back together?
AP photo
pair of hands grip jail cell bars






    Free at last
POSTED 24 MAY 2001 After 15 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, Jeffrey Pierce, 39, walked away from an Oklahoma prison May 7, leaving the state to figure out how many other innocent people were falsely imprisoned on testimony from Joyce Gilchrist, a chemist at the Oklahoma City crime lab.

Pierce, with his aunt and sister-in-law, smiles during a news conference the day of his release.

Pierce's conviction rested on the victim's mistaken identification of him, and on hair analysis by Gilchrist. He was exonerated with DNA profiling.

Gilchrist participated in about 3,000 cases since 1980. While she maintains that she's done nothing wrong, an FBI review said that in six of eight cases her conclusions "went beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science." Gilchrist remains under investigation.

Ideally, crime labs -- government organizations that solve crimes with forensic techniques -- help convict the guilty and free the innocent. The Pierce episode symbolized what happens when crime labs "round up the usual suspects" and, in the process, destroy the lives of innocent people.

The ecstatic smiles and bewildered "Rip Van Winkle" faces on people like Pierce have come to symbolize the quest to overturn unjust convictions. But equally important is the other half of the equation: With Pierce behind bars, the police stopped looking for the real rapist, who was free to victimize other women.

Whole lotta sleuthin' goin' on
As Pierce tries to readjust to life on the outside, 12 murderers on death row remain among those who could benefit if irregularities surface in other Gilchrist cases. The authorities say the reviews will change nothing. "Preliminarily, we're satisfied that there were no convictions that resulted [entirely] from the testimony of Joyce Gilchrist," Gerald Adams, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Attorney General, told the Washington Post (see "Oklahoma Reviews..." in the bibliography).

A gurney sits in a bare room.The death chamber at North Carolina Central Prison. Courtesy North Carolina Department of Corrections

Perhaps. But 11 murderers that Gilchrist helped convict have already been put to death. Last year the governor of Illinois, where releases from death row have become almost routine, put a moratorium on executions to prevent executing the innocent.

Trouble comin' every day
Pierce was not an isolated problem with the handling of evidence. In January, Christopher Ochoa walked after more than a decade in a Texas prison, falsely convicted for a rape-murder and finally exculpated by DNA fingerprinting.

And in the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the highest-profile federal cases in decades, Timothy McVeigh's execution was postponed after the FBI conceded it had failed to provide the defense with more than 3,000 documents.

Crime labs have made their share of errors. A 1997 report by the Department of Justice lambasted the FBI's crime lab for slanting toward the prosecution. The "laboratory's explosives, chemistry-toxicology and materials analysis units were rife with substandard performance," the New York Times wrote (see "Report Criticizes ..." in the bibliography.

Meanwhile, at other crime labs:

In Washington State, a dozen drug cases were dismissed in March when a technician admitted helping himself to heroin from drug samples. To prove a "chain of evidence," the state needed the technician's testimony, but as a prosecutor told the Seattle Times, "This is not a man we want testifying on behalf of the State of Washington" (see "Chemist's Heroin..." in the bibliography).

During the early 1990s, forensic "expert" and West Virginia state trooper Fred Zain was charged with fabricating evidence in West Virginia and Texas. An expert in "dry-labbing" (showing results from tests not done), Zain also doctored statistics. In 1993, the West Virginia Supreme Court disallowed all of Zain's evidence (see "Actual Innocence" in the bibliography). Although Zain has not been convicted of a crime, charges are pending in West Virginia.

In the Rampart scandal In Los Angeles, more than 110 convicts have been released due to irregularities with testimony and evidence. In April, a federal judge ruled that police officials, the mayor, city attorney, and city council may be charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law (see "Commentary: ..." in the bibliography).

Fingerprinting, a venerable crime-fighting technique, is being questioned now that the Supreme Court has required that scientific evidence have a scientific basis. Despite a century-long assertion that all prints are unique, the fact has never been proven. (We'll get to the details shortly.)

Meanwhile, Pierce has been reunited with his ex-wife, who divorced him after the conviction, and his twin sons, who didn't know he existed. "It was a joy, but it was scary," Pierce said. "In prison, you don't show feelings or anything. That's a sign of weakness. You have to be rough. I mean, I didn't know exactly what to say, really," (see "Man Freed..." in the bibliography).

Crime labs, like the one charged with handling evidence in the Pierce case, work in a curious limbo. Although they're supposed to provide impartial scientific evidence, they are usually part of the police or prosecution bureaucracy.

What are the problems with crime-lab evidence?



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