Shadow of Doubt

UPDATED 05/28/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/28/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

His twin sons Steven and Kevin were just 15 months old when, in 1986, Jeff Pierce was sent to prison for the rape and robbery of a woman in Oklahoma City. Though Pierce steadfastly maintained his innocence, and the victim had difficulty making an identification, he was convicted anyway, thanks largely to the forceful testimony of Joyce Gilchrist, a forensic chemist with the Oklahoma City police department. Then, last month, a DNA analysis showed that Pierce was indeed innocent. Released on May 7 after 15 years behind bars, Pierce at last got a chance to see his sons, now 15, play baseball near their hometown of North Lakeport, Mich. He vowed not to let the miscarriage of justice cost him any more precious time than it had. "I'm trying to go on with my life," says Pierce, 39. "I can't get back [what I lost]. It's gone."

But back in Oklahoma there is less desire to simply turn the page. In recent months Gilchrist, 53, has emerged as the focus of a widening controversy over her forensic work, dating back more than 20 years. Accusations of incompetence—or worse—that could potentially affect hundreds of cases have been lodged against her. At the request of Oklahoma City police, the FBI reviewed the evidence in eight cases, including Pierce's, in which Gilchrist had conducted tests between 1982 and 1991, and found that in at least five of those she had made obvious errors or had improperly stretched her interpretation of the evidence. State investigators are urgently reviewing 12 pending death penalty convictions involving Gilchrist, who has been suspended with pay, and are studying 11 other cases in which defendants have already been executed.

Through it all, Gilchrist is protesting her innocence. "I know I've done nothing wrong," she says. As she tells it, she is being scapegoated by her superiors for reasons she refuses to discuss. "Quite simply, I upset somebody in the local chain of command," she says. "That's why all this stuff started happening." Yet many defense attorneys in Oklahoma City argue that the investigation into her conduct is more than warranted. "She's an incompetent, malicious pseudoscientist who's done everything she could in every trial to help the prosecution get a conviction," says David Autry, an Oklahoma public defender who fought to obtain the DNA testing that freed Jeff Pierce.

In retrospect, there should have been more questions early on about Gilchrist's work. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, where her father was a butcher and her mother a factory worker, Gilchrist earned a degree in forensic science from the University of Central Oklahoma. She was fascinated, she says, by the challenge of decoding clues. "It's up to you to recognize, to listen to what a crime scene is trying to tell you, put it all back together and make a picture," she explains. She began working in the Oklahoma City crime lab in 1980 and eventually established herself as a highly effective expert witness. "She was very articulate, she dressed well, she looked sharp," says David Prater, an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County for the past eight years. "She knew how to testify."

In some cases, though, Gilchrist appeared to push the limits of her expertise. Many of these cases involved the analysis of human hairs, a procedure that is being gradually replaced by DNA testing. The analysis of hair, of which no two samples, even from the same person, are identical, has long been controversial, since it relies on sometimes subjective judgments of differences and similarities. "It's junk science," says defense attorney Barry Scheck. "It never should have been admitted to the courts." Yet on the stand Gilchrist was known to skate over those gray areas. In the late 1980s two murder convictions were overturned, after the state appeals court concluded that Gilchrist had overreached in linking the defendants to the crimes. Defense lawyers in Oklahoma City suspect that because she helped deliver guilty verdicts police authorities ignored those incidents and others, including a warning that Gilchrist received from a professional forensic organization in 1987 over her disputed testimony in a trial. Whatever the reason, Gilchrist, who is divorced and has two grown sons, received consistently positive job evaluations at the crime lab, which led to her promotion to supervising chemist in 1994.

Her findings in the Pierce case gave critical support to the prosecution. On May 8,1985, Pierce had been working with a landscaping crew at an apartment building in Oklahoma City. Around midday a woman tenant returned to her apartment and encountered an intruder, who raped and sodomized her. The victim described her assailant as having shoulder-length hair and wearing a tan T-shirt, fringed blue jeans, expensive white running shoes and black leather gloves. "The description did not match Jeffrey Pierce at all, in any particular," says attorney Autry. At the time of the attack Pierce had been pointed out to the victim, who could not make a positive identification. But 10 months later he was arrested, after police had him put on a tan T-shirt and appear in a photo array, at which point the victim picked him out. At trial Gilchrist testified that she had found at the victim's apartment 28 head hairs and three pubic hairs, which she said were microscopically consistent with samples taken from Pierce. Swayed by her testimony, the jury returned a guilty verdict against Pierce, who drew a sentence of 65 years.

The conviction came as a shock to Pierce and his young wife, Kathy, then 27. The couple had been married only about a year at the time of Pierce's arrest. Kathy says she was certain that her husband, who had no criminal record, was innocent. Still, with Pierce facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison, the couple made the painful decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their sons. "I didn't want her to be a 'prison mama,' visiting every week," says Pierce. "I trusted her to raise the kids right." So Kathy took the boys back home to Michigan, where her family could help care for them and where they wouldn't be known as the sons of a rapist. As they grew up she told them almost nothing about their father. "I knew the day would come when they'd ask about Jeff," says Kathy, who briefly remarried and who works days as a customer-service representative in Port Huron and part-time at night at a Hallmark card shop. "But until then I told them, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you that you don't have a father. You do have a father and he loves you.' "

Meanwhile, Jeff was consigned to the Oklahoma penal system, spending the past 12 years at a medium-security prison in Lexington. "I thought I'd be there for the rest of my life," he says. "I pulled away from most people and concentrated on prison and my friends there. The people on the outside couldn't help me in there." Had he admitted guilt, Pierce might well have won an early parole. But he refused, sustained by his brother Gary, who visited him at least every other week during his entire incarceration and who wrote countless letters on his behalf.

Authorities in Oklahoma City say they had no real cause to doubt Gilchrist until a 1999 ruling by federal district Judge Ralph Thompson. In reviewing the 1991 conviction of Alfred Mitchell for rape, sodomy and murder, Thompson found clear evidence that Gilchrist's testimony had been "untrue" when she asserted that an FBI test of a semen sample had been "inconclusive" as to whether the sample belonged to Mitchell. (In fact, the FBI had found that no sample from the victim matched Mitchell's, leading Judge Thompson to throw out the rape and sodomy convictions, while letting the murder conviction stand.)

That ruling prompted the Oklahoma City police brass to begin looking into Gilchrist's performance. When an FBI specialist reexamined the evidence in the Pierce case, he had trouble understanding how she could have reached the conclusion she did. "These hairs do not exhibit the same microscopic characteristics as the suspect's known pubic hairs," he wrote. But at least Pierce wasn't facing the death penalty. In another case Gilchrist said she found head hairs consistent with those of Robert Miller, who was suspected of raping and killing two elderly women. Convicted of the crimes, Miller spent seven years on death row, only to be freed later, after DNA analysis pointed to another suspect, Ronald Lott, whom Gilchrist had originally cleared of any involvement. For Jim Fowler, the son of one of the victims, it was a disturbing turn of events, especially since, in a bizarre coincidence, his own son Mark was executed earlier this year for another murder, leaving him with doubts about whether justice was done. For her part, Gilchrist claims she has always tried to do her best. "I'm not saying I never made mistakes," she says. "I'm saying if I did they were unintentional."

So far Gilchrist has not faced any formal charges or lawsuits, though Pierce is considering legal action. But in June she is scheduled to face a departmental hearing on whether she should keep her job. Meanwhile, the state has earmarked $725,000 for a DNA review of all relevant cases directly involving Gilchrist over the years. How easily the Pierces will be able to rebuild their lives is another question. "I feel sad about the time lost," says Kathy, and Jeff admits he is anxious about life outside of prison. He still has trouble going outside alone and, he says, "even pumping gas can be hard." But both he and Kathy seem to want to rekindle their relationship. "There's still love in my heart for him," says Kathy. "You don't forget that." Then her eyes fill with tears. "We're going to try to start over," she says.

Bill Hewitt
Gabrielle Cosgriff and Michael Haederle in Oklahoma City and Amy Mindell in Detroit

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