Pierce was freed from his 15-year ordeal May 7. Can he put his life back
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'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.
lotta sleuthin' goin' on
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.
comin' every day
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:
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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