Testimony Doubted in Execution Case 

By DEBORAH HASTINGS, AP National Writer 
August 29, 2001

   A man executed in Oklahoma last year was placed at the murder scene by the testimony of now-disgraced police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, but a police department memo obtained by The Associated Press says some of the scientific evidence she swore to does not exist. 

  The July 31 memo by a fellow lab scientist for the Oklahoma City Police Department refers to the case of Malcolm Rent Johnson, who was executed on Jan. 6, 2000, after being convicted in 1982 of rape and murder. Johnson, who had served time for two previous rapes, insisted he was innocent. 

  At Johnson's trial, Gilchrist testified that six samples taken from the murder victim's bedroom showed semen consistent with his blood type. But a July 30 re-examination of those slides showed ``spermatozoa is not present,'' says the memo signed by chemist Laura Schile. Schile resigned Aug. 2 from the embattled forensics lab, citing a hostile work environment. She names the lab's three other scientists as agreeing that sperm is not present. 

  While the memo does not exonerate Johnson, it marks the first time legal questions have been raised about Gilchrist's testimony in an execution case. The memo also noted that Gilchrist's testimony had been criticized previously. Two appellate courts have ruled Gilchrist gave false testimony about semen evidence in the 1992 rape and murder trial of Alfred Brian Mitchell, whose death sentence was overturned earlier this month because of what one court called her ``untrue'' testimony. ``There are now two cases where the results stated in the (lab) report and testified to by Joyce Gilchrist contradict independent expert re-examination of the actual physical evidence,'' Schile wrote. 

   Prosecutors said there was sufficient evidence separate from Gilchrist's testimony to convict Johnson. But Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Robert Ravitz, who represented Johnson at trial, disagrees. ``It really calls into question whether the state of Oklahoma executed an innocent person,'' he said Tuesday. 

  Problems with Gilchrist's testimony in other cases have led to the release of three inmates who served long sentences, including one on death row. Based on a preliminary review, authorities previously said there was no taint in the 11 cases where prisoners were put to death. 

  Gilchrist's attorney did not immediately return calls for comment. The chemist has previously denied any wrongdoing. 

   Ura Alma Thompson, 76, was found suffocated in her apartment on Oct. 27, 1981. There were no witnesses to the crime, and no fingerprints matching Johnson's were found. He was arrested after officers went to his home to question him about an unrelated parole violation and noticed items belonging to the victim. A search led to the discovery of her apartment key in his nightstand. He contended all the items were given to him by a third party. 

  Gilchrist told jurors that semen stains on the woman's bedspread and pillow case matched Johnson's blood type, which constituted the bulk of evidence used to tie Johnson to rape. The only other evidence stained by semen consistent with his blood type was a knee-high stocking, Gilchrist testified. That stocking has not been retested.  A vaginal swab contained 
sperm, but not enough to test, Gilchrist told jurors.  Gilchrist also testified that hair fragments matched Johnson's hair and that fibers matched a blue cotton shirt he owned. Johnson's trial marked the first time she had testified about fiber analysis. 

   DNA analysis was not available at that time, and the court denied the defense's request for funds to hire its own forensics expert. Johnson's attorney argued during trial that blue cotton shirts were so ubiquitious that the fiber could not definitively be linked to Johnson. 

   Schile refused comment Tuesday on the memo contradicting Gilchrist's testimony, which she addressed to Richard Smith of the Oklahoma City Municipal Counselor's Office. 

   Kyla Marshall, one of the chemists named by Schile, confirmed that when the slides purported to contain sperm were retested, they revealed only a few fibers from the victim's bedspread and pillow case. Sperm does not deteriorate for decades, she said. 

   Richard Wintory, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said Tuesday that he still does not doubt Johnson's guilt. ``The evidence against Malcolm Rent Johnson is absolutely, uncontestably, overwhelming he done it, done it, done it,'' Wintory said. ``This suggestion that an innocent guy was executed is not true about Malcolm Rent Johnson.'' 

  ``I am confident he is guilty of murder,'' Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said. ``He was convicted and sentenced to death and there is ample evidence supporting without consideration of forensic testimony.'' 

   Gov. Frank Keating's office said he agreed the execution was appropriate. 

   Oklahoma City Police Chief M.T. Berry declined comment except to say that his department was willing to have evidence from the Johnson case retested by an independent lab. 

   Gilchrist was suspended with pay earlier this year after the FBI, which reviewed eight of her cases, concluded she had misidentified evidence or made other serious mistakes in six of them. Hearings began last week to determine whether she should be fired. 

   In the Mitchell case, a lower federal court ruled Gilchrist had knowingly given false testimony and that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers. That court still upheld the death penalty, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it Aug. 13, saying, ``We simply cannot be confident that the jury would have returned the same sentence had no rape and sodomy evidence been presented to it.'' 

   Doug Parr, who serves on the board of the Oklahoma Defense Lawyers Association, filed suit last month against the Oklahoma City Police Department, claiming it is illegally refusing to release public records pertaining to Johnson's case. Schile re-examined the slides after a visit from Parr. On Tuesday, Parr filed court papers seeking Schile's memo. ``It is yet another example that Ms. Gilchrist is apparently willing to lie and present false evidence in order to support prosecutors' efforts to convict persons in serious felony cases in Oklahoma County,'' he said. ``The question right now is did he commit the crime, period?'' 

   The state attorney general's office, which is reviewing cases in which Gilchrist's testimony was pivotal, briefly re-examined Johnson's case earlier this year. The attorney general said then that he was satisfied enough separate evidence existed to warrant the execution, including the victim's property being found in Johnson's home. In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors cited Johnson's two previous convictions for rape in Chicago and the ``heinous'' nature of the rape and murder, and said he posed a danger to the community. 

   Johnson's public defender said his client might have been spared the death penalty if he hadn't been convicted of rape. But attorney Garvin Isaacs, who has represented several defendants Gilchrist testified against, said any one of the aggravating circumstances in Johnson's case could have resulted in the sentence, regardless of the rape conviction. "It's Oklahoma,'' he said. 

   According to a recent survey by Amnesty International, Oklahoma has more executions per capita than any state. 

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