Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2001 5:21 PMSubject: [Malcolm Rent Johnson] Police memos contradict chemist's forensic testimony at a 1982 Oklahoma City murder trial

Oklahoma City police forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist and her attorney, Melvin Hall, during a recess in a court hearing last week. Police documents show tests conducted of material found at a 1981 murder scene contradicted testimony given by Gilchrist. (AP)

August 30, 2001 | Los Angeles Times

Evidence Questioned in Execution: Police memos contradict chemist's forensic testimony at a 1982 Oklahoma City murder trial


The investigation of a controversial Oklahoma City police chemist has produced evidence raising questions about whether she testified falsely in the 1982 rape and murder trial of a man who was executed last year, protesting his innocence to the end.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson released two memos written last month by four Oklahoma City Police Department forensic scientists saying tests they had conducted of material found at the murder scene contradicted testimony given by Joyce Gilchrist.

Edmondson stressed in an interview that he remained convinced that Malcolm Rent Johnson was guilty of the rape and murder of Ura Alma Thompson because of the strength of other evidence. Edmondson, who released the memos after they were described in stories by the Daily Oklahoman and Associated Press, said it was possible that "we might reexamine the evidence down the road." Now, however, Edmondson said his office was focused on reviewing numerous cases in which Gilchrist testified and the defendant received a long prison term or a death sentence not yet carried out.

The Oklahoma City Police Department placed Gilchrist on paid administrative leave in March after the FBI reported that Gilchrist made significant errors in five of eight cases the bureau reviewed. That report led to the release of Jeffrey Pierce, who had served 15 years of a 65-year sentence for rape--a case in which Gilchrist offered key testimony about hair found at the crime scene.

Earlier this month, an appeals court in Denver reversed the rape and murder conviction of Alfred Brian Mitchell, and ordered him retried. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that jurors might have relied on Gilchrist's testimony that falsely implicated him for raping a woman before killing her. The judges said that during Mitchell's appeal, his attorneys obtained Gilchrist's handwritten notes, which "completely undermined [her] testimony."

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City police said there are five separate probes of Gilchrist's work taking place, including an internal investigation by the department.

Gilchrist has denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday, her attorney, Melvin Hall, said neither he nor his client had any comment on the forensic scientists' memos.

The latest controversy involves the 1982 trial of Johnson, who was convicted of raping and murdering Thompson, 76, who was found suffocated in her apartment on Oct. 27, 1981. There was no eyewitness, but the building manager said he had seen Johnson nearby.

Johnson, then 23, was arrested when local police officers found items belonging to Thompson at Johnson's apartment when they went to see him about an alleged parole violation. Johnson had two prior rape convictions.

Among the items found were Thompson's apartment key, a watch and a ring. Johnson said his brother gave him the items--a contention the brother denied.

At the trial nearly 20 years ago, Gilchrist testified that six samples taken from a bedspread and a pillow in the victim's apartment were the same blood type as Johnson's. Gilchrist also testified that semen found on a stocking was consistent with Johnson's blood type. She said that although sperm was found on a vaginal swab taken from the victim, there was not enough to test. Additionally, Gilchrist said hair fragments found at the scene were similar to Johnson's hair.

In late July, four police chemists reviewed slides prepared by Gilchrist for the trial. Laura Schile, the lab's DNA manager, described the findings in a memo to Richard Smith of the Oklahoma Municipal Counselors office.

"It should be noted that upon examination of these slides" the findings were contradictory "to those reported out and testified to by Joyce Gilchrist," Schile wrote. "Spermatozoa is not present on" three slides prepared with material that came from the bedspread or three slides prepared with material that came from the pillowcase, Schile added.

A separate memo by three of Schile's colleagues presents the same conclusion.

Schile recommended to Smith, who is advising the police department in its probe of Gilchrist, that the actual physical evidence should be reexamined in the Johnson case.

"Solely relying upon the notes, testimony and reports that pertain to these questioned cases is not sufficient," Schile wrote, adding that the Johnson case marked the second instance in which Gilchrist's testimony contradicted physical evidence that had been independently reexamined.

Attorneys familiar with forensic techniques said that if Gilchrist properly prepared the slides, and they contained sperm at the time, it should still be present.

Schile resigned from the police department on Aug. 2 amid reports that she was in conflict with department chieftains. She could not be reached on Wednesday.

Schile's attorney, Gavin Isaacs, said: "She was intimidated by the Oklahoma City Police Department and some of the lawyers involved in this case. . . . She has cooperated with law enforcement investigators."

The three other chemists remain on the job but could not be reached for comment.

In recent weeks, the Johnson case has taken an increasingly high profile in the Gilchrist probe.

Oklahoma City defense lawyer Doug Parr, who is playing a key role in the investigation, said that after he and other attorneys reviewed 12 cases in which Gilchrist had done the prosecution forensic work and the defendant subsequently was executed, "we decided that Malcolm Johnson had one of the strongest claims of actual innocence."

"He went to his death proclaiming innocence," Parr said. "His confession to the prison chaplain was that he had done a lot of bad things but not this."

Parr acknowledged that there was strong circumstantial evidence supporting Johnson's guilt. But he also maintained there was no reason not to review all the evidence and subject the biological evidence to DNA testing.

Parr said he has been attempting to get Oklahoma City official to send that evidence to a highly regarded lab in Richmond, Calif. He said the Oklahoma City officials wanted to send the material to a lab he considered inferior. Jessica Cummins, the Oklahoma City police spokeswoman, said simply that the two sides disagreed on where the testing should be done.

Parr also has filed a lawsuit seeking access to all records in the case. The city has opposed this request and has acknowledged that it had lost some of the records.

DNA testing was not available at the time of Johnson's trial. Oklahoma City public defender Robert Ravitz asked the trial judge for funds to hire his own forensic expert to examine the evidence, but the request was denied. At the time, Ravitz questioned Gilchrist's testimony that blue cotton fibers found at the crime scene matched a shirt Johnson owned. Ravitz said the type of shirt was so common that it could not be conclusively linked to Johnson.

Years later, federal public defender Vicki Werneke of Oklahoma City, who represented Johnson in constitutional challenges to his conviction, attempted to secure DNA testing of the biological evidence. The state attorney general's office resisted, saying that under federal laws governing death penalty appeals, Johnson was ineligible for testing. Federal judges agreed, so no testing was done.

Johnson's appellate lawyers contended that prosecutors had improperly struck three potential jurors who were African American, as was Johnson. The victim was white.

On Wednesday, Edmondson said that he was not sure what to make of the memos by the police chemists. But he asserted that the case against Johnson had been very strong. "He could have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt without any forensic testimony," Edmondson said.