SUSPENDED police chemist waits to hear her fate

Saturday, September 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Like many of the defendants she testified against, embattled police chemist Joyce Gilchrist is awaiting a verdict.

She soon will find out if she still has a job. Also under scrutiny are hundreds of her case files and a decision _ possibly months away _ on whether she should be prosecuted.

A city panel heard eight days of testimony about Gilchrist and is expected to issue a recommendation within a couple of weeks to Police Chief M.T. Berry on whether she should be fired or disciplined, said Monica Coleman, a lawyer in the city attorney's office.

Berry then must decide what action _ if any _ to take.

The private hearing was a chance for Gilchrist to respond to allegations that she has performed shoddy work and given false or misleading testimony in some criminal cases.

``She wants to come back to work,'' her attorney, Melvin Hall, said Friday. ``She's in good spirits and feels in the end she will be vindicated.''

Hall and Coleman said participants in the hearing were told by the panel not to discuss what went on in the sessions. The panel's recommendation to Berry also will be private.

If Berry chooses to fire Gilchrist, he may do so on the narrowest of grounds in an effort to limit the city's vulnerability to potential civil lawsuits, said Doug Parr, a member of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, which has been active in seeking information about the Gilchrist investigation.

``Legal advisers to the city of Oklahoma City will advise Berry not to terminate her on any grounds that establishes some kind of liability,'' he said.

``It seems pretty obvious that Oklahoma City has some pretty substantial municipal liability at risk here.''

In 1986, Gilchrist misidentified hair evidence in the sexual assault trial of Jeff Pierce. That conviction was overturned May 7, and Pierce was allowed to go free.

In April, the FBI recommended a review of all cases in which her work was significant to securing a conviction.

Meanwhile, a forensic team at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has reached the halfway point in its review of Gilchrist's forensic work. So far, the team has reviewed 583 case files and marked 99 for further study.

Kym Koch, a spokeswoman for the OSBI, said it could take another year to review all of these files.

The agency also has a criminal investigation under way.

If Gilchrist were to be criminally charged, the city would not provide a defense attorney, Coleman said. If she were the subject of civil litigation, the city would consider providing an attorney, whether or not she was still working for the city, Coleman said.

The attorney general's office is tracking down court transcripts that correspond to the cases selected for further review and these will be sent to the OSBI.

The office has rejected calls by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches and others for the naming of an independent counsel to investigate Gilchrist.

``Our response to that has not changed,'' said Gerald Adams, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. He said a task force that includes his office is still trying to determine the extent of the problems involving Gilcrhrist's work.

``For now it would be premature.''