(CN) – Oklahoma City is not liable for the actions of a forensic chemist who fabricated lab results to convict an innocent man of rape and kidnapping, the 10th Circuit ruled.
David Johns Bryson spent 17 years in jail after Joyce Gilchrist of the Oklahoma City Police Department testified that Bryson’s hair and semen samples matched evidence from a crime scene.
Bryson’s 1983 conviction was vacated after a new DNA test cleared him. Even so, it took another 3 1/2 years for a judge to dismiss the charges against him.
Bryson successfully sued Gilchrist for $16.5 million, after discovering that the chemist’s own lab results showed that his sample was inconsistent with the semen at the scene.
A federal judge, however, ruled that the city could not have predicted the falsified lab results and was therefore not liable.
The Denver-based 10th Circuit upheld that decision, saying it could not rule for Bryson because of lack of evidence.
“We are sympathetic to plaintiff’s plight and find it deplorable that the conditions that led to his unjust confinement were permitted to continue for so long a time after the city was put on notice of the deficiencies in its forensic laboratory program,” Judge Monroe McKay wrote for the court. “Nevertheless, we see no basis in the summary judgment record for holding the city liable in this case.”
The judge said that even if city failed to properly train Gilchrist, she would have known that lying at trial and fabricating evidence was inappropriate.
“We are not persuaded … that it was highly predictable or plainly obvious that a forensic chemist would decide to falsify test reports and conceal evidence if she received only nine months of on-the-job training and was not supervised by an individual with a background in forensic science,” McKay said.
Complaints about Gilchrist’s work did not come to light until 1986, so McKay added that the city could not have expected the misconduct.
“Police supervisors promoted Ms. Gilchrist in the face of repeated criticisms of her work,” but city officials only learned of defects in Bryson’s case in 2001, at which point she was fired, the ruling states.
Bryson said the city was responsible for his continued imprisonment because it stood idly by after Gilchrist told his attorney that his samples had been destroyed.
“We conclude, however, that the link between the city’s alleged failure to meaningfully supervise Ms. Gilchrist’s work after 1986 and the constitutional injury suffered by plaintiff is too attenuated to support a finding of municipal liability,” McKay wrote.
The appeals court also dismissed Bryson’s argument that the city encouraged its forensic scientists to fabricate evidence to secure convictions, which he supported with testimony of a former Oklahoma City police chief.
“The police chief’s statement suggests, at most, that the city condoned chemists presenting their actual forensic findings in the most damning way possible-not that the city encouraged chemists to fabricate test results.