by Matthew T. Clarke
Washington State Patrol crime lab forensic scientist Charles Vaughan had no problem finding new employment after he helped convict two innocent Oregon State men of murder when he worked as a state forensic scientist in the Oregon State Police crime lab. Indeed, as it now turns out, the innocent men would not have been convicted without Vaughan's tainted testimony. Furthermore, since he was hired by Washington, Vaughan has botched more forensic work and made mistakes on forensic-science proficiency examinations.
Vaughan had been working for the Oregon State Police crime lab for about thirteen years when 19-year-old convenience store clerk Raymond Oliver was murdered in Springfield, Oregon, on June 7, 1983. The murder was an execution-style shooting from close range. On June 24, 1983, Chris Boots and Eric Procter were arrested for the crime, but three days later were released without having been charged.
Vaughan analyzed alleged blood evidence--which he referred to as high velocity blood splatter--from Boots's and Procter's clothing. He claimed to have found a fleck of gunpowder on Procter's pants. In testing the fleck, Vaughan totally consumed it and only discovered that it contained nitrates, chemicals found in matches, fireworks, car paint, and other compounds, as well as gunpowder. In 1984, Vaughan testified about these findings to a Lane County grand jury, but no indictment was returned.
In March 1986, Vaughan sent a second gunpowder flake" he allegedly found on the clothing to the FBI, requesting their assistance in identifying it. He sent a letter to the FBI crime lab, pressuring it for quick results because Boots had filed a lawsuit against the police department for false arrest. The FBI lab confirmed it was gunpowder. Proctor was indicted in May 1986. He was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison on October 31, 1986. Boots was convicted of the same charge and received a similar sentence on March 24, 1987. FBI lab supervisor Charles Calfee testified at both trials that the second gunpowder flake" was indeed double-base gunpowder.
About ten years later, FBI chemist Fredric Whitehurst revealed the FBI crime lab's bias and incompetence in analyzing evidence. He was asked to review Calfee's findings and concluded that there was no proof that the second flake was gunpowder. However, the FBI refused to admit it had made a mistake.
Other scientists agreed with Whitehurst. One scientist, Kenneth Kosanke, examined a photograph and test results from the flake in March, 1997, and determined that it could not be gunpowder.
In 1994, a tip led investigators to the man who had killed Oliver. Richard Ricky" Kuppens confessed to the crime before he committed suicide in October 1994. His fingerprint had been discovered on tape left at the crime scene. His accomplices admitted that Boots and Proctor had nothing to do with the crime. Boots and Proctor were freed in November 1994.
On May 17, 1995, Vaughan retired from the Oregon State Police crime lab. On July 17, 1995, the Washington State Patrol crime lab hired him. At that time, he didn't mention his part in convicting Boots and Procter or that he was demoted from director to assistant director in 1993 for failing to discipline a crime lab employee who falsified test reports, according to Washington crime lab officials.
Boots and Proctor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Vaughan, the state of Oregon, Lane County, the city of Springfield, and two police officers in November 1995. However, the judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove that Vaughan manufactured evidence or otherwise acted with deliberate indifference," the high standard that must be met in federal civil rights lawsuits. Mere incompetence or negligence is not sufficient to win in this type of suit. Thus, Vaughan escaped any consequences for his responsibility for convicting the innocent men. Boots and Proctor settled their suit against the two police officers for $2 million in May 1998.
University of California-Irvine criminology professor William Thompson worries about this lack of accountability and the ease at which Vaughan slipped out of Oregon when the heat was on and settled into Washington with no questions asked.
"It may well be another Melnikoff case," said Thompson in reference to a Spokane crime lab chemist who was fired in March 2004 after it was discovered that his botched hair analysis while he worked as a forensic scientist in Montana put a Montana man in prison of a rape he didn't commit. "I think an audit of [Vaughan's] work would be in order."
Vaughan has also made errors in hair analysis. In September 1998, Thurston County prosecutors had to dismiss a burglary case after defense experts proved that Vaughan's analysis falsely linked the defendant to the crime. That same month, Vaughan failed his trace analysis proficiency examination. However, the crime lab didn't find out about his failing the examination for a year. When they did find out, what was the consequence for Vaughan? Nothing. He still works as a forensic scientist in Tacoma.
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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