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Executed Man’s Voice Echoes in New Probe

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

At his trial for rape and murder, during 18 years on death row, on the night they strapped him to a gurney and executed him, Malcolm Rent Johnson told anyone who’d listen that he was innocent.

Even the prison chaplain, who’d heard the last confessions of several condemned men, hadn’t heard that one. Other inmates admitted guilt and begged forgiveness. Johnson said, “I’m innocent,” recalls the Rev. Charles Story.

State Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson says Johnson deserved to die. Even if police chemist Joyce Gilchrist did give false testimony against Johnson--as former colleagues have suggested--there was other “overwhelming” evidence presented at trial that proved Johnson’s guilt, Edmondson says.

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But an Associated Press review of Johnson’s 1982 trial transcripts shows that “overwhelming” evidence--including a statement made by Johnson and another made by a witness--was inconclusive even then.

The transcripts also paint a vivid picture of what transpired in the courtroom where 23-year-old Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death.

A federal grand jury convened last month to investigate Johnson’s execution and nine others involving testimony by Gilchrist, who was recently fired.

Whether Johnson was telling the truth is not the issue, said several legal experts who have reviewed his case. The real issue is whether he received a fair trial. That question reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take the case. But the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that Johnson did not.

Johnson was executed Jan. 6, 2000.

“I’m going to heaven on a midnight train,” he told those assembled to watch him die.

Malcolm Rent Johnson was in trouble most of his life. As an adolescent, he ran away from his father’s home in Oklahoma City to be with his divorced mother in Illinois. In Chicago, at age 15, he was arrested for carrying a gun. At 19, he pleaded guilty to raping and robbing two women and was sentenced to state prison.

Illinois parole officials allowed Johnson to move to Oklahoma City in 1981 to be near family. Five months later, police came to his apartment to arrest him on suspicion of violating his parole by carrying a handgun.

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At the time, Oklahoma City Police Department chemist Joyce Gilchrist had been on the job only 18 months. But already she was well-liked by prosecutors for her commanding presence on the witness stand and her forceful testimony about some of the most equivocal forensic evidence--hair and fibers.

A few years later, Gilchrist came under attack from colleagues for definitively matching hairs taken from a crime scene to those of a defendant--something forensic experts say is impossible without DNA testing, which wasn’t readily available then.

Still, she served 21 years in the police lab before Police Chief M.T. Berry fired her this September. Her mistaken testimony about forensic evidence had helped send two innocent men to prison and another guiltless man to death row. All have been released.

One case involved Jeffrey Todd Pierce, who was convicted of rape in 1986 after Gilchrist misidentified hair evidence. DNA tests later proved Pierce was not the attacker. He was released in May after serving 16 years for a rape he didn’t commit. His release prompted the state to open an investigation of hundreds of cases in which Gilchrist testified. The review is expected to take several more months.

The FBI declined comment on its separate probe involving the federal grand jury. Gilchrist’s attorney, Melvin Hall, said his client also had no comment. “A grand jury has been impaneled. She needs to wait and see what happens next.”

Attorney Doug Parr filed suit against Oklahoma City earlier this year seeking independent analysis of forensic evidence which Gilchrist testified to in Johnson’s trial.

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In August, Associated Press obtained an internal police department memo that said some evidence used to prosecute Johnson did not exist. That evidence, which Gilchrist swore to at trial, placed Johnson at the 1981 murder scene of Ura Thompson and constituted virtually all the state’s claim that she had been raped and that Johnson was the rapist.

When police searched Malcolm Johnson’s home after arresting him for violating parole, they found a cigarette lighter, a watch and an apartment key, all belonging to Thompson, a prim woman who never married and lived in a spotless apartment nearby.

Johnson was mildly retarded. He said that he didn’t know the items were stolen, and that he’d received them from a third party.

He couldn’t afford an attorney, and wasn’t entitled to a public defender until criminal charges were filed. He sat in jail for seven days before being arraigned on charges of rape and murder.

Johnson denied any knowledge of Thompson’s death. He agreed to long interrogations by homicide detectives. He voluntarily gave hair and blood samples. He wasn’t asked for a semen sample, even though the medical examiner said Thompson had been raped.

With no eyewitnesses and no fingerprints, the district attorney’s case rested largely on Johnson’s possession of stolen property and Gilchrist’s analyses of stains, hairs and fibers found at the crime scene.

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Gilchrist told jurors that six stains taken from the woman’s pillow case and bedspread contained semen belonging to a man with type B blood, the same as Johnson’s and about 20% of the American population.

Twenty years later, Oklahoma City Police Department chemist Laura Schile, after a visit from attorney Parr, would look at those six evidence slides under a microscope and find no trace of semen. On July 31, she wrote a memo to her boss saying so. She sent copies to Berry and Atty. Gen. Edmondson. Her analysis was corroborated by the lab’s three other chemists.

Asked about the memo, which would invalidate crucial trial testimony, Edmondson pointed to other evidence he considers overwhelming.

Specifically, he cited an “incriminating” statement Johnson made to police, as well as a statement by Thompson’s landlord placing Johnson in the vicinity of her apartment complex.

Apartment manager Jerry Laxton testified he’d seen Johnson before.

Johnson lived in the same neighborhood, had no car and often walked where he needed to go or took the bus, Johnson’s public defender, Bob Ravitz, noted at trial.

“Now, you don’t know whether or not you saw Malcolm Johnson two weeks, three weeks or four weeks before [the murder], is that correct?” Ravitz asked.

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“No sir, I sure don’t,” Laxton replied.

According to trial transcripts, Johnson’s “incriminating” statement was open to differing interpretations.

During a jailhouse interrogation, a detective told Johnson, “We found your sperm” in the victim.

Johnson said that couldn’t be true. Ravitz recounted for the jury what his client told police: “That’s a lie, I didn’t [ejaculate].”

The defendant, with an estimated IQ of 72, was confused, Ravitz said. Johnson had already given hair, blood and saliva to investigators. “But you see, he didn’t give any semen,” Ravitz said.

The public defender was denied funds to hire an independent forensic expert to analyze stains, fibers and hair evidence examined by Gilchrist. “Mr. Johnson would have been better off having a chemist than having a lawyer,” Ravitz said.

That denial figured prominently in 18 years of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Johnson’s trial on the basis he was denied due process of law. Justice Marshall dissented. A lack of expert assistance, he wrote, gave Johnson no “meaningful opportunity to present a defense.”

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The state trial judge, William S. Myers Jr., reached recently for comment, said Gilchrist’s expert testimony did not seal Johnson’s conviction. The fact that Thompson’s property was found in Johnson’s home was enough to prove murder and rape beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

“Absolutely,” said Myers, now retired from the bench. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have accepted the verdict.”

Prominent criminal defense lawyers in Oklahoma say that it takes more than stolen property to prove murder and rape, and that Johnson would never have been convicted without Gilchrist’s testimony.

“That’s a bunch of garbage,” said Ravitz, now chief public defender of Oklahoma County. “A jury might convict on possession of stolen property, but there’s nothing else.”

Said Parr: “It looks like they killed someone who didn’t do it.”

Two decades after his client was convicted, Ravitz is still troubled by several aspects of Johnson’s trial. One is the prosecution’s theory about how the attack occurred. Another is the fact that Gilchrist didn’t collect evidence until two days after Thompson’s body was discovered by her nephew, Frank Thompson.

During those 48 hours, someone stripped her bed, dumped the bedspread on the floor and piled the sheets on the mattress, according to testimony. Family members, Laxton, detectives and the medical examiner, among others, walked through an unpreserved crime scene.

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Then-Dist. Atty. Bob Macy, assisted by prosecutor Barry Albert, told jurors that Johnson stalked Thompson. But they were theorizing; no witnesses were called to document that scenario.

The medical examiner said she had been dead for one day, possibly more. When her nephew arrived to check on her, relatives hadn’t been able to reach her by phone for five days.

Prosecutors told jurors that Johnson must have followed Thompson home from the local market, slipped into her apartment complex, followed her up the stairs, then “stormed” into her apartment, dragged her to her bed, fell with her to the floor, raped her, then suffocated her. Then, Macy said in court, Johnson remade the bed to cover his crime.

“I’ve never heard of a rapist remaking a bed,” Ravitz said recently. “It makes no sense.”

Photos taken when police arrived show the bedspread’s floor-length dust ruffle was smoothed behind a high footboard and the bed neatly made. Two velvet throw pillows were arranged at the head of the bed. Near the foot rested Thompson’s clothes, a pair of earrings and a comb.

Her apartment was so immaculate that her nephew, Laxton, and the police assumed she had died of natural causes. Her body, clad only in knee-high stockings, was on the floor between her bed and the bathroom.

Her nephew, who recently had been named executor of her estate, covered her body with a coat, called a friend to cancel a bridge game and then phoned police, trial testimony shows. Ravitz unsuccessfully sought to cast suspicion on this behavior. Prosecutors castigated him for it before the jury.

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“He’s never offered you one scintilla of evidence of any conspiracy by anyone to take the life of Ura Thompson for the purpose of inheriting her estate. He vilified that man,” Albert said, referring to Frank Thompson.

It wasn’t until the medical examiner arrived and noted blood in her vagina and bruising on her chest and face that Thompson’s death was considered suspicious, officers testified.

Gilchrist testified she didn’t know who removed Thompson’s bedding. Gilchrist took it to the police lab, where she removed eight hairs and several hair fragments, which she studied under an ordinary microscope.

Enlarging those hairs 400 times, she said, she matched them to samples supplied by Johnson.

Ravitz attacked Gilchrist’s credibility. “Joyce Gilchrist does not know enough about chemistry to qualify as an expert in anybody’s courtroom,” he told jurors.

It was her first testimony about fiber evidence. Her training in that field, and in hair analysis, came from a 14-day FBI seminar and an undergraduate forensics course, she testified.

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Dist. Atty. Macy praised her importance in the trial--the opposite of what Edmondson says. Edmondson, arguing for the state, later opposed attempts by Johnson’s lawyers to obtain a new trial and DNA testing of forensic evidence.

In court, Macy said Ravitz “had to attack Joyce Gilchrist because Gilchrist gave him the testimony that firmly erased any reasonable doubt at all in this case.” Her evidence, he said, “is damning, it’s condemning, it’s conclusive.”

The jury took 90 minutes to find Johnson guilty.

The next day it began hearing testimony on whether he should be executed.

Macy and Albert called five women, ranging in age from 59 to 90, who had been recently attacked or raped within four blocks of where Thompson and Johnson lived. Three identified Johnson as their attacker. Gilchrist linked him to the others with testimony about hair and fiber evidence.

In death penalty hearings, state law allows prosecutors to detail other crimes, even if the defendant has not been convicted of them. Johnson was a suspect in the other attacks.

Oklahoma is serious about its death penalty. This year, it has executed more inmates than any state.

Macy, who resigned this summer in the middle of the Gilchrist scandal, often said his proudest accomplishment was sending more prisoners to death row--54--than any other DA in office.

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He made no apologies for wanting Johnson dead.

“It’s my job to protect decent, law-abiding, good citizens of this county,” he told jurors. “And if that means taking the lives of the Malcolm Rent Johnsons, then so be it.”

The same jurors who convicted Johnson deliberated 3 1/2 hours before deciding he should die.

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AP correspondent Kelly Kurt in Tulsa contributed to this story.

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