In a case that highlights the perils of sloppy prosecution, Gage County, Nebraska could be facing bankruptcy after a $30 million dollar settlement was ordered for six wrongfully convicted men and women. Stemming from the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson, the three men and three women were convicted in 1985, exonerated in 2008, and won the lawsuit against their prosecutors in 2016. 23 years after the murder DNA evidence implicated Bruce Allen Smith, a deceased Oklahoma man and cleared suspect in the case.
Joyce Gilchrist was the forensic chemist responsible for testing Smith's samples in 1985. Exalted by colleagues not only for prowess in her field but in persuading juries too - they nicknamed her "black magic" for an unmatched ability to link evidence to crimes, where others had been unable to. In a stunning turn of events, it was unearthed that Gilchrist was a fraud who falsified evidence in countless cases, 23 of which led to a death sentence. 11 of those executions have been carried out. Gilchrist falsely, and perhaps even knowingly, reported no match between Smith's DNA sample and samples collected from the murder scene, despite the sample indeed belonging to Smith. The corrupt chemist was subjected to almost no penalties other than being fired from her post. She was never charged despite her conscience role in misreporting lab results. The review of the Wilson case that pinned the murder to Smith came in 2008, 16 years after his death from AIDS in an Oklahoma hospital.
Forensic botching was only the first tier of mismanagement in the case. Next came outright prosecutorial misconduct. The Helen Wilson case illustrates how the frenzy and fear that often grip a town after murder can lead to hasty, error-riddled prosecution. All parties involved sought a feeling of resolution toward the unsettling events that transpired. In a desperate attempt to put the Wilson murder case 'to bed,' prosecutors bullied confessions from suspects during intense interrogations. They went so far as to recruit a psychologist to convince one of the women that she'd forgotten her participation in the murder because her memory was “blocked.”
After obtaining confessions gathered from 'dreams' and 'memories,' the suspects pled guilty in hopes that it would abate their sentences, although none were guilty as charged. Speaking on the interrogation methods used in the Wilson case, the Nebraska attorney general said, “in plain language, we don't do it that way anymore.”
Joseph White, the 'rapist' in the prosecution's construction, fervently maintained his innocence. Repeated requests for new DNA testing were not granted until 2007 - then came his exoneration. Jerry Soucie, a lawyer for one of the other men convicted, said he plans to meet with legislators to discuss a bill that would provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted.
The fallibility of forensics in linking (or failing to link) someone to a crime should never be discounted in the criminal justice system. The six men and women spent a collective 70 years in prison, filing a federal lawsuit upon their release which resulted in the $30 million verdict. The county, which holds 22,000 residents and collects $8 million in taxes annually, is considering filing for bankruptcy in light of the verdict.
No matter the circumstances, everyone charged with a crime deserves defense of the highest caliber. If you have been arrested and face criminal charges, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.
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