CSI Gone Rogue

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In my previous posting I wrote about CSI labs that produced wrongful convictions because of sloppy procedures, outdated equipment and an unconscious bias toward the police. There’s a subset of these cases, though: Investigators who produced results so outrageously wrong that they appear to have done so on purpose – in essence, framing the accused.

Much has been written about the cases of forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist of the Oklahoma City Police, hair analyst Arnold Melnikoff of the Montana state crime laboratory, and bite mark analyst, Dr. Michael West of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. But the most notorious of the rogue CSI investigators was Fred Zain, who left a swath of well over a hundred wrongful convictions in West Virginia, Texas, Hawaii and other states.

I first became aware of Zain when a friend, the late Dr. David Bing of the Blood Research Center in Boston, was asked to consult on the case of a West Virginia man named Glen Woodall. Woodall had been convicted in 1987 of multiple counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery for attacks on two women. His conviction was largely based on expert testimony by Zain, who was chief of serology of the West Virginia Department of Public Safety. The court sentenced Woodall to 203 to 335 years.

Several years later Woodall appealed. His attorneys asked Dr. Bing to analyze the DNA evidence that had been preserved from the victims and collected from Woodall. Bing concluded that Woodall could not possibly be the assailant. Woodall was set free after spending four years in jail and one year in house arrest and the state awarded him $1 million in damages.

Bing’s work was the first tug on a string that unraveled the fabric of Zain’s career. Bing found such gross discrepancies in Zain’s lab work that the state Supreme Court launched a probe into the entire body of Zain’s investigations, followed by another by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Together they found that 134 cases needed to be re-examined because of “impossible” results furnished by Zain.

Employees came forward saying that Zain recorded positive results from blank test plates, blood-matches that no one else could confirm, and altered laboratory notes. Some employees became so concerned about his work that they refused to testify in any case in which he had played a role. His lab results confirmed the police’s version of events, which is why he was such a popular witness for the prosecution. With his polished appearance and striking self-confidence, he seemed the personification of modern science.

The scandal exploded through the West Virginia judicial system — there would literally be dozens of cases to re-try, and at least nine additional men have been freed. The state tried to indict Zain for perjury, only to be stymied by the statue of limitations. Then they tried to sue him for fraud – on the basis that by lying about his resume and not conducting proper laboratory procedures he had fraudulently collected a salary from the state.

By then he had moved to the Bexar County prosecutor’s office in San Antonio, Texas where he caused another scandal by fabricating evidence to secure the rape conviction of one suspect and the murder conviction of another. The murder reversal was especially frightening because the suspect missed the death penalty by the vote of a single juror. [Click here to read about the Gilbert Alejandro and Jack W. Davis cases].

Bexar Country fired him, but he continued to consult for prosecutors from several states. He died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52, as charges in West Virginia were pending against him.

Why did he do it? We’ll never know: Zain professed his innocence to the end, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A more important question – why his superiors tolerated or remained ignorant of his behavior – has never been answered.