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Oklahoma City Not Liable for Wrongful Conviction Resulting from Falsified Forensic Evidence

by Matt Clarke

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Oklahoma City can not be held liable for the actions of disgraced forensic chemist Joyce A. Gilchrist, who was employed in the city’s police crime lab for over two decades, and that a man who served 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit due to forensic evidence falsified by Gilchrist could not force the city to indemnify her.

Gilchrist testified at David Johns Bryson’s 1983 trial, stating that hair and semen found at the crime scene were consistent with samples taken from Bryson. Seventeen years later DNA test results proved that he didn’t commit the crime, and Bryson was released from prison. It took another 3½ years before the charges against him were finally dismissed. Subsequent retesting of the forensic evidence used by Gilchrist indicated that the evidence should have excluded Bryson, and that contrary to Gilchrist’s testimony at trial, Bryson could not have been the semen donor.

Bryson filed a civil rights suit against Gilchrist and Oklahoma City in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He agreed to settle with Gilchrist for $16.5 million in 2009, but the court granted summary judgment to the city after finding that Bryson had failed to prove municipal liability. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.44].

While the lawsuit was pending, Gilchrist filed an indemnification cross-claim against the city which, without participation by Bryson, settled for $23,364.29 on June 23, 2009. Bryson then filed a motion seeking indemnification directly from the city, which was denied by the district court. Bryson appealed.

The Tenth Circuit noted that Bryson principally based his appeal on his argument that the city should be held liable for Gilchrist’s misconduct because it had failed to adequately train and supervise her. The appellate court found the “evidence suggests the City may well have been deficient in training and supervising Ms. Gilchrist,” but that did not prove the city’s policymakers were deliberately indifferent to the need for further supervision and training.

At the time of Bryson’s criminal trial in 1983, the city had not received any complaints about or criticisms of Gilchrist’s work. The Court of Appeals determined that her actions in concealing exculpatory evidence and falsifying test reports were not a predictable or obvious result of her possibly inadequate training, which consisted of nine months on-the-job training with no subsequent supervision. Although better training and management practices were adopted at forensic labs in the U.S. beginning in the 1970s and early 1980s, those reforms were not universal by 1983, and thus the lack of such improvements at the city’s lab was not predictive of Gilchrist violating Bryson’s rights.

The appellate court further held the city could not be held liable for the time Bryson spent in prison after Gilchrist’s wrongdoings began to come to light in 1986, as no city decision-maker learned of the problems with Bryson’s case until 2001, and Gilchrist was terminated when they became known. Also, it had not been proven that the city had a custom or practice of encouraging its forensic chemists to falsify evidence.

Thus, Bryson could not sustain his claim against the city, nor was he entitled to indemnification by the city of his $16.5 million settlement with Gilchrist. In a previous unpublished opinion, the Tenth Circuit had rejected the concept that “an injured party can be substituted for a tortfeasor employee as the real party in interest under [the Oklahoma indemnification] statute,” Okla. Stat. Title 51 § 162(A). Therefore, Bryson had “no standing to pursue the employee’s indemnification on his own behalf.”

While expressing sympathy to Bryson’s plight, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s rulings and judgment on December 6, 2010. Bryson was represented by Norman, Oklahoma attorney Michael Salem.

Bryson filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was denied on June 20, 2011. See: Bryson v. City of Oklahoma City and Gilchrist, 627 F.3d 784 (10th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

Hence, after spending 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Bryson obtained a $16.5 million settlement he could not collect – demonstrating the complete absence of justice in our nation’s justice system relative to his case. PLN has previously reported extensive problems at forensics crime labs across the nation that have resulted in wrongful convictions. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.1].

Additional source: Oklahoma Gazette

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Related legal case

Bryson v. City of Oklahoma City and Gilchrist