LAWMAKERS discuss idea of an independent state crime lab

Friday, July 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Controversy surrounding an Oklahoma City police chemist and her work has legislators considering a proposal to create an independent crime lab in the state.

Members of the Appropriation and Budget Joint Subcommittee on Public Safety and Transportation on Thursday examined the idea of creating a separate state agency to provide forensic laboratory services in criminal cases, according to a report from the Tulsa World's capitol bureau.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation presently operates forensic labs, and police departments in Tulsa and Oklahoma City have their own labs.

State Sen. Dick Wilkerson said creating an independent facility might help to remove any public perception that lab findings are biased in favor of law enforcement. He said there was a time when a judge and the public would accept the word of a forensic chemist.

``I've got my doubts now,'' Wilkerson, D-Atwood, said.

State and federal investigators are looking at the work of police chemist Joyce Gilchrist. The assessments began when the state released Jeffery Todd Pierce, who served 15 years in prison for a rape that recent DNA testing proved he didn't commit. Gilchrist, who is on paid leave, has denied wrongdoing.

Jack Dempsey Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he expects Pierce to seek $200,000 in compensation from the state for his imprisonment.

Unless the state takes some action to ensure the independence of its crime lab, ``there are going to be more people coming here with their hand out for $200,000,'' Pointer said.

Jim Bednar, the director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, said he favored the creation of a separate crime lab but added, ``You better be ready to finance it.''

He said such labs don't come cheap.

On the other hand, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said leaders would be ``absolutely dreaming'' if they thought the separation of crime lab work from the OSBI would reduce criticism.

He said the crime lab employees would still get their paychecks from the state. He added he does not believe the OSBI labs have a bad reputation.

OSBI Director DeWade Langley also opposed the idea of taking away the OSBI's lab functions and creating an independent lab.

The bureau crime lab operates on a $9.6 million annual budget and is the only crime lab that is accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.

The legislative committee also discussed whether to require that all crime labs in the state be accredited and that all experts be certified before they could provide testimony in criminal cases.

Langley said it took the OSBI lab five years to be accredited. The crime labs for Tulsa and Oklahoma City might be compelled to shut down if they were required to be accredited, Langley said.