Ohio State Criminal Convictions Threatened by Evidence Technician’s Misconduct
by Derek Gilna
Recent court filings make it clear that G. Michele Yezzo, an evidence technician for 33 years with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), had a long history of behavioral problems that put the credibility of her findings in criminal cases in doubt.
According to the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), the Office of the Ohio Public Defender and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University Law School, which together formed a task force, all of the cases that Yezzo worked on should be reviewed.
The groups worry that hundreds of Ohio state criminal convictions in cases in which Yezzo was involved may be tainted. In fact, one prisoner has already been freed after serving 23 years, and petitions for new trials in other cases have been filed citing irregularities in Yezzo’s lab work as well as her disturbing disciplinary record.
In one of those cases, attorneys for Kevin Keith, 53, filed a motion for a new trial in October 2016 in the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas. The motion alleged the evidence that led to Keith’s arrest and conviction in a 1996 triple homicide was flawed, quoting a former supervisor of Yezzo, who said in 1989 that her “findings and conclusion regarding the truth maybe (sic) suspect.”
Keith’s attorneys obtained Yezzo’s personnel file and found she had a long history of disciplinary reprimands, many of which were directly related to the quality of her work analyzing evidence in criminal cases.
For example, according to the complaint, Yezzo was investigated for “threatening co-workers and [exhibiting] bad behavior,” developing a “reputation of giving dept. answer wants if stroke her (sic).” The complaint added that “analysts reworking Yezzo’s cases questioned [her] conclusion of a blood analysis and a partial footprint analysis.”
Another Ohio state prisoner, James Parsons, 77 and in ill health, who had served 23 years after being convicted in 1993 of killing his wife, also filed a motion for a new trial. OIP attorney Donald Caster argued that state prosecutors neglected to advise Parsons’ trial attorney that Yezzo, the lab technician handling evidence in his case, had been suspended before trial due to arguments with her co-workers.
In April 2016, a state court reversed Parsons’ conviction and ordered a new trial because prosecutors had withheld evidence related to Yezzo’s work-related problems. The court also held Parsons could be released pending the retrial.
“The suppression of this evidence deprived Mr. Parsons of his right to due process,” Judge Thomas Pokorny wrote. “The court now finds the verdict in Mr. Parsons’ trial is unworthy of confidence.”
Yezzo had a long history of confrontations with her colleagues and allegedly threw things at one of them. One former co-worker, who declined to be identified, said, “I heard her say on the phone to cops basically, ‘What do you need the evidence to say.’... That’s why she was able to keep her position, because police and prosecutors said good things about her.”
Former BCI superintendent John Lenhart noted, “I remember the very best employees I had and the ones that needed improvement. And she fell into the category of needing improvement.”
Lenhart became aware of Yezzo in her area of claimed expertise, blood-splatter analysis: “She was reaching conclusions that other scientists were not reaching, and she was ahead of her time with this work.”
But her behavior was another matter. Lenhart ordered an investigation in 1993 after Yezzo reportedly threatened a colleague.
“I thought we did what as managers we needed to do, and I thought she was gone,” Lenhart said.
He was surprised to learn that Yezzo was only suspended and continued to work until 2009, when she retired after being reprimanded for making errors.
Yezzo was not a favorite of her union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which used a bargaining rule in an unsuccessful attempt to get her supervisors to force her to undergo a mental health exam due to her “erratic, abusive behavior,” which included frequent sobbing spells, swearing at her boss, making obscene gestures at co-workers and threatening to shoot one of them.
“The consensus is that Michele’s perceived problem affects her performance. Her findings and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect,” stated former BCI Superintendent Daniel Chilton, who added, “[s]he will stretch the truth to satisfy a [law enforcement] department.”
Yezzo didn’t dispute the majority of the complaints and reprimands in her personnel file, though she said she wasn’t aware of all of them. She described herself as a “tough” trainer who wanted to give new analysts a taste of what they would experience from attorneys in the courtroom when they defended their work.
“I wish they had let me know they were afraid of me,” she said. “I was stern because I knew what they would get in court.” Yezzo received the first of five formal reprimands in June 1987, after she cursed at a co-worker, tore the newspaper he was reading and threw a 1-by-6-inch metal plate at him, just missing his head.
“This is not an isolated incident. In recent months, you have been abusive toward and made other inflammatory, offensive and insulting comments to other workers,” wrote her supervisor at the time. “You are also advised that future behavior of this type is not tolerable and may be cause for more serious disciplinary action.”
In September 2008, BCI disciplined Yezzo for misinterpreting the results of a glass test – an exam that uses trace evidence to determine the proficiency of a forensics expert’s analysis. Because it was the second time she had made such an error, the agency had to transfer all such cases to another office for analysis.
Three months later, BCI officials questioned Yezzo about a second “quality issue” related to paint analysis in a criminal case. Discovery of the error forced the BCI to re-examine all paint analysis she had completed during the previous 18 months.
“These interpretational and observational errors indicate a lack of attention to detail, which cannot be tolerated in such a sensitive position,” BCI Superintendent Paul C. Tobin wrote in a 2009 reprimand. “Your failures could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.”
Tobin also informed her that a forensic scientist would re-evaluate her work in the future to make sure it was correct. A month later, Yezzo resigned – although questions and concerns regarding her forensics findings in criminal cases remain.
On June 26, 2017, however, the Ohio Court of Appeals denied Kevin Keith’s appeal of his homicide convictions, rejecting arguments related to Yezzo’s involvement in his case as an evidence technician.
“Over the years in his numerous appeals and post-conviction petitions Keith has challenged many aspects of his case and the evidence against him, but one fact remains clear, the evidence against Keith was simply overwhelming,” the appellate court wrote. “Based on the record we cannot find that, even assuming Yezzo’s personnel file was suppressed, and that it contained information favorable to Keith, there is no reasonable possibility that the information contained in Yezzo’s file would have made any difference in the outcome of this case.” See: State v. Keith, 2017-Ohio-5488, 2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 2545 (Ohio Ct. App. 2017).
Sources: Columbus Dispatch, The Plain Dealer, www.thecrimereport.org, www.cleveland.com, www.otse.org, www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com
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Related legal case
State v. Keith
|Cite||2017-Ohio-5488, 2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 2545 (Ohio Ct. App. 2017)|
|Level||State Court of Appeals|