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Oklahoma City scandal casts doubt on death row cases
A prosecutor's secret weapon

By Elizabeth Schulte | May 11, 2001 | Page 2

OKLAHOMA CITY--Hundreds of relatives of the victims of the 1995 federal building bombing have been invited to watch the May 16 execution of Timothy McVeigh on closed-circuit TV. That story will dominate the national media in the coming weeks. But there's another story in Oklahoma City that isn't getting the same attention.

Local officials are in hot water after revelations that critical evidence was mishandled or ruined in thousands of criminal cases over a period of 25 years--including nearly two dozen where defendants ended up on death row. An internal police memo published by the Oklahoman newspaper charges that the department's forensics lab was "grossly mismanaged."

"If we fail to take action, we very well may find civil action being taken against the city, the laboratory and the civilian and sworn personnel involved," reads the memo written by Capt. Byron Boshell to Police Chief M.T. Berry. Joyce Gilchrist, a 21-year forensic scientist and now manager of the lab, is under investigation by the FBI and state authorities for misidentifying evidence and giving improper testimony. Boshell's memo describes critical evidence stacked all over the lab--easily exposed to contamination--as well as Gilchrist's regular practice of destroying evidence in rape cases after just two years.

The Oklahoman has also published a leaked FBI report that concludes that Gilchrist gave testimony "that went beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science" and misidentified hair and fibers in at least six criminal cases. Gilchrist had a hand in more than 3,000 prosecutions--and helped send 23 men and women to death row. Eleven have already been executed--including one just days after the scandal broke.

Now authorities are scrambling to investigate the other 12 death row cases--and to avoid questions about whether the 11 were definitely guilty. The scandal may have played a part in the resignation of veteran District Attorney Bob Macy--who has put 54 inmates on death row, more than any active prosecutor in the country.

President Bush and the other politicians want us to think of Timothy McVeigh when we think of the death penalty. But most death row prisoners are different--too poor to afford a lawyer, disproportionately minorities, often the victims of corrupt cops and zealous prosecutors.

Just the kind of people that Joyce Gilchrist helped to convict.

Chilling record of Georgia's electric chair

ATLANTA--Supporters of the death penalty claim that executions provide a sense of "justice" for relatives of murder victims. But the state of Georgia helped to prove this month that there's nothing resembling justice in an execution.

Audio tapes of the state's electric-chair executions between 1983 and 1998 were played on National Public Radio, ABC's Nightline and other media outlets in early May. The tapes--which were obtained by a lawyer for a Georgia death row inmate--feature prison officials giving a blow-by-blow account of prisoners being put to death.

Georgia authorities thought the tapes would show that they followed proper procedure. But they show something else. "It was painful to listen to," said David Isay, who produced a program based on the tapes for New York public radio station WNYC. "The people sound so dispassionate. It sounds like a NASA space launch. Even when the execution is botched, it's routine, routine, routine."

Featured on the tapes is the 1984 execution of Ivon Ray Stanley, who was mentally retarded, with an IQ of 62. After Stanley was put to death, the voice of the Georgia attorney general is heard complimenting prison officials on a "smooth job." "We appreciate it," comes the reply. "Send us another one."

High-profile cases of innocent people on death row and evidence of racism and class bias in how the death penalty is applied has led to a growing questioning of capital punishment. A recent ABC/Washington Post opinion poll found that a majority of people support a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty until its fairness is examined. The chilling tapes of Georgia's electric-chair murders will only add to the opposition to America's killing machine.

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