Free at Last?

Oklahoma Gazette | June 15, 2005
Four years ago, Curtis Edward McCarty had given up. He relegated himself to the idea he was going to die for a crime he says he did not commit. His appeals nearly exhausted, there seemed no hope of a judge, panel or state official stepping in and saving McCarty from a fate he couldn’t stop.

It turns out, the person who helped send him to prison for murder may be the one to set him free.

A shorthanded Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is considering McCarty’s appeal he received an unfair trial and could remand the case back to district court with an order to dismiss the case that has been considered since January.

“While it is frustrating, because we believe he should be released, we understand this is the normal process of how a court works,” said McCarty’s attorney Vicki Werneke, general counsel with Oklahoma’s Indigent Defense System. “And considering what the court has gone through with two different judges, we understand.”

Should the court see things McCarty’s way, 20 years of despair will slither away when the cell door opens and McCarty walks out of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester branded with an unfamiliar name — innocent.

Awaiting the verdict from the court, McCarty reflected his thoughts about dying at the hands of the state.

“I considered it four years ago until this investigation,” McCarty told Oklahoma Gazette during an interview at the prison. “This investigation saved my life.”

He was reffering to the case of the scientist whose work put hundreds of men behind bars, including McCarty.

Joyce Gilchrist was a legend and hero at the Oklahoma City Police Department for 20 years. Her fingerprints on a case led to an inevitable conclusion: conviction. But years later, reports and investigations by local and federal authorities found her work to be unreliable, faulty and misleading.

McCarty was one of her big cases as police and prosecutors hungered to find justice for the man convicted of murdering the daughter of a cop.

McCarty said that hunger turned to a zeal which blinded justice.

“My position is and always has been they knew when they filed the charges it wasn’t me and they did it anyway because it involved a policeman’s family. They thought I had information about the crime and wouldn’t tell. I suppose in their view that would make you guilty as well. But I didn’t have any knowledge, but they had convinced themselves that I did.”

Neither the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office nor Gilchrist’s attorney would comment.

Pam Willis was the 18-year-old daughter of Oklahoma City Police Officer Jim Willis. Her body was found the morning of Dec. 10, 1982, in the kitchen of a friend’s house where she was staying.

Willis was into drugs, as was McCarty, who said he did know the 18-year-old through other friends. Detectives zeroed in on McCarty three years later, which resulted in a statement McCarty signed. He confessed to driving his alleged drug connection, Rick Terry, over to Willis’ for a drug deal. He claimed he left Terry over there and when he returned, Willis was dead.

Whether the confession was a ploy by police to nab McCarty, or just another clue that led to McCarty, he would be the one arrested and facing murder charges.

But he now claims he never knew Terry and was tricked into signing the statement.

“At the time I was just one of those people with weak character. Young and dumb and smoking dope and doing all of that. It made me vulnerable and it worked.”

Two decades staring at prison walls have changed the once young and dumb drug addict. Freedom alone is not his only motivating factor. He wants a new trial to clear his name.

“None of that ‘Gilchrist screwed up, chain of custody been violated, there can’t be a new trial’ nonsense. I did not do it,” he said, fist pounding the table, “and they know damn good and well I didn’t do it.

“I want to be exonerated. Others just walk away with head between their legs just happy to be alive. That’s not enough. They stole 20 years of my life because they wanted to.”

McCarty would make at least 11 prisoners to be released due to wrongful conviction during the past 10 years. The list includes high profile murder cases like Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz who were released from prison in 1999 after spending 10 years on death row. When an FBI report critical of Gilchrist’s work made its way to the press in 2001, Jeffrey Todd Pierce was soon released after spending 15 years in prison for rape.

Other Gilchrist cases to be reversed are David Johns Bryson in 2003, who was in prison for 17 years for rape, and Robert Lee Miller Jr., released in 1998 after a murder conviction locked him away for nearly 11 years.

DNA testing has come to the aid of McCarty. Three years ago, semen stains recovered from Willis’ body were sent to the lab. The findings concluded negative for a match to McCarty.

Which is why McCarty would welcome a new trial. His reasons are twofold: exoneration and exposure.

It is well established Gilchrist helped put innocent men behind bars, with evidence mounting the deeds may have been intentional. McCarty wants to put prosecutors in the chair he sat in 20 years ago.

“For so long, so many people knew what she was doing was wrong,” McCarty said of Gilchrist. “The district attorney’s office was aware of it, but they did it anyway because they got the results they wanted.”

McCarty was largely convicted on forensic evidence tested and testified to by Gilchrist. At his first trial in 1986, Gilchrist told a jury hair samples found at the crime scene were consistent to McCarty. But in his appeal, McCarty alleged independent analysis into Gilchrist’s work not only found her statements to be inaccurate, but possibly malicious. Her lab notes were examined by document experts who concluded changes were made to implicate McCarty after she had ruled him out as a suspect.

After an internal investigation, Gilchrist was fired from the Oklahoma City Police Department in September 2001.

For possibly the first time since he was in grade school, Curtis Edward McCarty may have a chance to lead a normal life and cleanse the troubles of his past. Drug addiction and a death sentence are not all that have tainted his life. Before his 1985 arrest for murder, McCarty pled guilty to raping a 14-year-old Moore girl and was a suspect in another murder case.

As each year passed in McAlester, hope began to fade.

“I’ve watched for two decades these men die knowing my fate. I’m not delusional. I’m convinced the court is going to do the right thing.

“I didn’t live a moral life, but I didn’t kill Pam Willis.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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