Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
David Johns Bryson served 16 years in Oklahoma prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Although he was released in 1999 when DNA testing proved his innocence, it would be four more years before prosecutors dropped the charges against him. His conviction was based in part on the false forensic testimony of Joyce Gilchrist, a former forensic analyst whose whose misconduct has contributed to at least four wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing.
On the evening of September 23, 1982, a woman left her job at an Oklahoma City law firm and walked to her car. As she reached the car, she was attacked by a man, who moved into the driver’s seat and forced her into the passenger seat. The man began driving and simultaneously beating the woman over the head. He also forced her to perform oral sex on him while he drove.
Eventually, the attacker stopped the car near a ravine in southeast Oklahoma City. He tore off the woman’s shirt and used it as a blindfold. Before being blindfolded, the victim saw that the man had a knife. The man proceeded to rape the woman vaginally and anally and again forced her to perform oral sex. The victim then bit the attacker’s penis, causing him to scream and drop his knife. She jumped from the car and ran to a nearby home, where she called police.
The Investigation and Identification
On the night the crime occurred, Bryson went to the hospital seeking medical care for an injury to his penis. After his initial visit, he called the hospital seeking a prescription to treat an infection of the wound. The doctor who wrote this prescription later overheard hospital staff discussing a request from the Oklahoma City Police Department for information on any patient with injuries to his penis. The doctor informed the police that Bryson had been treated for such injuries. Bryson was arrested two weeks after the crime.
The victim was shown a photo lineup including Bryson’s photo. When she identified Bryson as her attacker, the officer administering the lineup told her that the man she had chosen was in custody and had an injury to his penis. The victim would again identify him at trial as her attacker.
On appeal in 1985, Bryson claimed that the officer’s confirmation of the victim’s selection in the photo lineup influenced her certainty at trial that she had chosen the right person. His appeal was denied. Another woman told police that she had seen a man hitchhiking near the crime scene on the night of the crime. This woman also identified Bryson in a photo lineup.
The Trial and Conviction
Bryson went to trial in 1983 before a jury in Oklahoma City. Joyce Gilchrist, an analyst in the Oklahoma City Police Department Crime Lab, testified at Bryson’s trial that hairs found on the victim’s body were consistent with the head and pubic hairs of Bryson. In addition, semen was identified on swabs from the victim’s body and on a bathrobe given to the victim shortly after the crime. Gilchrist testified that the blood type of sperm cells in both of these samples matched Bryson’s blood type. Since the victim had reported that the perpetrator had ejaculated during the attack, Gilchrist said these blood type results meant Bryson could have been the attacker.
In addition to Gilchrist’s forensic testimony, the victim testified that he was the man who attacked her and brutally raped her. The other witness also testified that Bryson was the man she saw hitchhiking on the night of the crime near the scene. Bryson was convicted and sentenced to 85 years in prison.
Appeals and Exoneration
Bryson appealed his conviction in 1985, arguing that he had been wrongfully convicted based on faulty eyewitness testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. His appeal was denied. In 1988, Gilchrist told investigators, falsely, that no follow-up testing could be conducted because biological evidence from the crime scene had been lost.
An appeals court, however, ordered a new search for biological evidence in 1997, and the semen samples were found. DNA testing was completed in 1999 and the results proved that the semen did not come from Bryson or the victim’s live-in boyfriend. Bryson was released from prison that year pending a new trial, and two years passed before prosecutors finally said in 2001 that they didn’t intend to retry Bryson. All charges were dropped and he was officially exonerated.
Bryson is one of several people exonerated by DNA testing in cases involving faulty forensic testimony or reports from Gilchrist. She was fired in 2001 after an FBI report found misconduct in her work on several cases during her 21-year career.