This is the latest in a series about failures in forensic medical examiner laboratories throughout the United States. Many people believe that these labs are always accurate and unbiased, but this belief is undermined by the number of scandals which have been reported at these facilities in recent years.
Joyce Gilchrist was hired in the early 1980s by the Oklahoma City Police Department to work as a forensic chemist. During her two decades in that city's crime lab, Gilchrist earned the nickname "Black Magic" because of her "sorceress-like" ability to match evidence to a particular criminal even though other chemists had failed to do so. Gilchrist testified for the prosecution in numerous criminal trials, including 23 death penalty cases; 11 of those defendants were eventually executed.
But Gilchrist was fired in September of 2001 for allegedly performing sloppy lab work and exhibiting inferior case management. The major catalyst in that decision was the DNA exoneration that year of Jeffrey Pierce, who was convicted of rape in 1986 despite a strong alibi and no criminal record. Gilchrist had testified that hair samples submitted by Pierce were "microscopically consistent" with those found on the victim. Pierce was freed from prison after serving 15 years, and eventually won a $4 million settlement with the city.
As a result, some 1,700 cases involving Gilchrist's handling of evidence were examined by independent scientists. They concluded that Gilchrist's work was flawed, and that her "false and misleading testimony" may have resulted in numerous wrongful convictions.
Many verdicts have been overturned as the result of questionable evidence submitted by Gilchrist.
Gilchrist has never faced any criminal charges for her forensic lab failures. She even sued in an attempt to get her job back. But this scandal left a black mark on the criminal justice system in Oklahoma City that it is only now starting to overcome.