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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Scientist’s behavioral issues cast doubt on Ohio convictions

Dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal convictions in Ohio could be in jeopardy because a longtime forensic scientist at the state crime lab now stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases.

The credibility of G. Michele Yezzo, who worked at the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for more than three decades, has been challenged in two cases in which men were convicted of aggravated murder. One has been freed from prison because of her now-suspect work.

A review of her personnel records by The Dispatch shows that colleagues and supervisors raised questions about Yezzo time and again while she tested evidence and testified in an uncounted number of murder, rape and other criminal cases in the state.

Their concerns included that she presented evidence in the best light for prosecutors instead of objectively, used suspect methods while examining trace evidence from some crime scenes, and made mistakes that, as one former attorney general put it, “could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.”

Yezzo, 63, of West Jefferson, told The Dispatch that the accusations about her work being biased are wrong and that she approached her work objectively.

“I have never done anything to overstate analysis of evidence, nor have I done anything, for lack of better a word, to taint the evidence,” Yezzo said. “No, I didn’t appease prosecutors and law enforcement. I bent over backwards to try and find out whatever evidence was there, and that’s the best I can tell you.”

But two former attorneys general, defense attorneys, a judge, a former BCI superintendent and a nationally renowned forensic expert from the FBI all say that Yezzo has credibility issues that may have poisoned cases she touched.

Lee Fisher, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1995, and Jim Petro, who served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007, both said they didn’t know of Yezzo when they were in office, but they now have concerns about her work.

“I would call for an investigation into every case where her findings and conclusions were instrumental in the final result of a case,” Fisher said. “We have an obligation to the integrity of the criminal-justice system to investigate every case. We have to determine whether her findings or conclusions were suspect.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Friday that his office was alerted to the concerns about Yezzo in 2015 and has since conducted two separate reviews of her work. One involved examining 100 criminal cases where Yezzo’s evidence analysis played a role in a conviction.

DeWine said they found no issues with her work.

Moving forward, DeWine, who did not serve as attorney general during Yezzo’s tenure, said he has no plans for an internal investigation into Yezzo’s history, but he will have open discussions with defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis if they raise questions.

He said the BCI, which handles about 37,000 cases a year, has a “long history of doing good work” and has received the highest level of accreditation.

More than 800 pages of Yezzo’s personnel records paint a disturbing pattern of behavior that started shortly after she walked in the BCI doors in 1976. The concerns escalated over time until she resigned in 2009.

Over the 32 years that Yezzo worked in the crime lab, her bad behavior intensified to the point that colleagues questioned her mental health.

In the records, colleagues and supervisors described these concerns about Yezzo: She threatened to use a gun to shoot her co-workers and herself. She threw a 6-inch metal plate at one co-worker. She exposed her breasts to BCI agents at a bar, flipped off her boss and acted in a hostile manner to almost every lab employee, according to records. She was accused of calling an African-American scientist a racial slur, something Yezzo denies. She frequently broke into crying spells for no apparent reason.

Forensic scientists quit because of her erratic behavior. At one point her union, the Fraternal Order of Police, refused to back her.

Yezzo admits to the majority of the behavior described in her personnel file.

She attributed her erratic and sometimes abusive actions to intense pressure within the BCI to handle an enormous caseload as its lead forensic analyst.

She said the bureau was usually short-staffed and had difficulty keeping up with the workload. She also said she was having problems in her personal life. Those issues related to the loss of her sister and her mother moving in with her after the death.

She doesn’t believe her behavior affected her work.

Yezzo received numerous verbal reprimands and was suspended in 1993. But her analysis of evidence continued to be used in many high-profile felony cases despite the concerns about her work and behavior inside the state’s crime lab in London, where forensic scientists examine and analyze evidence from crime scenes across Ohio.

Click here to read the full article


Source: The Columbus Dispatch, Mike Wagner, Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan & Earl Rinehart, October 30, 2016

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