REPORT: Convicted rapist could be freed this week

Sunday, May 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(OKLAHOMA CITY) - A man convicted of raping a woman in 1985 could be released from prison this week once a laboratory report arrives at the Oklahoma County district attorney's office.

According to a California lab's DNA analysis, neither Jeffrey Todd Pierce's hair or semen matches the evidence obtained at the Oklahoma City apartment complex where the crime took place, The Sunday Oklahoman reported.

John Jacobsen, first assistant district attorney in Oklahoma City, said Pierce will be released once the DNA report is verified.

``If proof is that an innocent man is in prison, this office will do what is necessary to get him out,'' Jacobsen said.

Testimony from police chemist Joyce Gilchrist helped to convict Pierce. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have scrutinized her work at the request of Gov. Frank Keating, Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Oklahoma City Police Chief M.T. Berry.

Gilchrist is on paid leave as a result of the case.

An FBI chemist recently examined hair left by the rapist in the Pierce case - hair that Gilchrist testified in 1986 was ``microscopically consistent'' with Pierce's - and determined that this statement from Gilchrist was wrong.

The FBI reported Gilchrist incorrectly identified head hairs and pubic hairs recovered from the victim, her clothing and apartment as being microscopically consistent with Pierce's.

Gilchrist's ``bogus hair testimony,'' as well as the rape victim's identification, led to Pierce's conviction, his attorney, David Autry said.

Gilchrist's lawyer, Melvin Hall, said his client disputes the FBI findings.

``She stands behind everything she did, and the police department stood behind it until recently,'' he said.

Berry asked the FBI to check Gilchrist's work after questions were raised on Pierce's case. In January, the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System asked police to re-analyze the evidence, Berry said.

Police submitted the evidence to another chemist in the police lab to review Gilchrist's work.

``I think we just about let every chemist in the laboratory look at it, and none of them came to the same conclusion that the original chemist did,'' Berry said.

The evidence was then submitted to the OSBI lab, and they came up with the same conclusion.

Berry then asked the FBI to intervene.

The victim, a native of Tennessee, was living temporarily in north Oklahoma City when she was attacked on May 8, 1985.

She was attacked after returning from work around noon that day by someone who had broken into her apartment. The attacker pushed her to the floor and held a pillow over her face while raping her, threatening to kill her if she looked at him.

The victim thought her attacker was the same man she had seen outside her apartment earlier that day holding what she believed was a gardening implement. Pierce was a groundskeeper at the apartment complex and working the day of the attack.

When asked later by a police officer if Pierce attacked her, the woman said, ``I don't think so.'' A detective wrote in a police report two months later that he believed the rapist was a maintenance man or groundskeeper.

Pierce was arrested 10 months after the attack when the victim identified him from a photo lineup as the rapist.

At trial, the victim told jurors, ``I will never forget his face.''

Pierce had two witnesses who said he was at lunch with them when the rape occurred.

Gilchrist testified at the trial that 28 scalp hairs and three pubic hairs from the crime scene were all ``microscopically consistent'' with Pierce's hair. Jurors were told Gilchrist spent six days making the hair comparisons.

Jurors took eight hours to convict Pierce after first voting 7-5 to acquit. They heard testimony linking Pierce to the 1984 rape and murder of jogger Judy Weichert, although he was never charged with that crime.

Gilchrist had concluded that hair left in the Weichert slaying was consistent with hair in the rape case. That is the same hair the FBI now says Gilchrist misidentified.

Efforts to throw out the testimony on appeal failed.

Tim Wilson, a longtime assistant public defender in Oklahoma County, said prosecutors for years used Gilchrist ``to prop up eyewitness and snitch testimony. ... They pulled her out and used her like a mighty sword.''

Judges routinely rejected attempts to keep Gilchrist from testifying beyond her expertise because ``what judge wants to be identified as soft on crime?'' Wilson asked.

Gilchrist's attorney said his client is being smeared. She has not testified ``beyond the acceptable limits of science'' as claimed by the FBI, Hall said. Her testimony about hair and fibers was accepted by courts at the time, he said.

``DNA has exonerated a lot of people nationwide. Are those chemists being subjected to this sort of scrutiny?'' Hall asked.

Roy D. Orr, a juror in the Pierce trial, said the hair evidence played a huge role in his decision to vote guilty.

``I feel like I was part of a scam,'' Orr said. ``The evidence wasn't correct and we counted on the police department and forensic specialists to be honest and truthful, and that wasn't the case.''