Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that a review by his department of some of the thousands of cases involving forensic scientist G. Michele Yezzo was sufficient.
Defense lawyers from around the state are launching a sweeping review of cases involving a forensic scientist at the state crime lab who has been accused of being biased toward law enforcement.
The Ohio Innocence Project, the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at the Case Western Reserve University Law School formed a task force to review all of G. Michele Yezzo’s cases.
The defense attorneys believe every case Yezzo touched in her nearly 33 years at the Ohio attorney general's Bureau of Criminal Investigation is now in question after her personnel file revealed credibility issues and a long history of behavior problems. They say her history could upend dozens, if not hundreds, of cases.
The review was formally announced days after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that his office had already conducted an internal review of some of Yezzo’s work and found no issues.
DeWine declined to conduct a sweeping review of Yezzo’s work using independent analysts. Instead, he said that moving forward he would evaluate defense attorneys' objections case by case.
That stance didn’t sit well with many of the defense attorney organizations. They say a review by the same agency where Yezzo was employed is not credible, and neither is selecting random samples of her work. They believe a federal agency or a credible private lab should conduct an investigation into the thousands of cases Yezzo handled. They acknowledge that most of the people convicted in the cases Yezzo worked on are likely guilty, but it’s possible some are innocent. All cases should be reevaluated because Yezzo's credibility issues might have jeopardized defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial, they say.
The argument that has already set one man free is that trials, plea agreements or sentences might have turned out differently had defense attorneys known about Yezzo's history when their clients were originally charged.
“This is DeWine saying 'I want to end this rather than fix it,'” said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young. “I’m sorry, but this was an employee of the agency you presently run. And you are the leading law enforcement officer in this state, and you have to set an example for how justice is supposed to work, and this is a bad example. You fix your own house and you fix it in the light of day instead of now putting the burden on defense attorneys.”
Yezzo, 63, of West Jefferson, denied accusations that she was biased toward police and prosecutors and said she never manipulated evidence. The bias accusation was made several times by her former colleagues.
“I bent over backwards to try and find out whatever evidence was there, and that’s the best I can tell you,” she told The Dispatch last week. “I testified to the results, not to try and make any points with anybody."
In stories published Sunday, the Dispatch profiled two cases in which Yezzo’s work has been questioned. In one case, a judge freed a man after serving 23 years in prison for killing his wife. In the other, a man who was commuted off Death Row in 2010 by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland filed a motion asking for a new trial. He currently is serving a life sentence for a triple homicide.
Yezzo’s personnel file also shows numerous explosive outbursts and confrontations with colleagues. These behavioral problems started shortly after she started at BCI in 1976 and continued until she resigned in 2009.
Personnel records show Yezzo threatened to use a gun to shoot co-workers or herself. She hurled a metal plate at someone. She flipped off her boss and was accused of calling a black co-worker a racial slur.
Yezzo denied using a racial slur but didn’t dispute the long history of behavior issues when interviewed by The Dispatch.
DeWine said his office investigated the allegations last year after lawyers with the Ohio Innocence Project began questioning Yezzo's work. The office reviewed about 100 cases dating back to 1985 in which Yezzo provided evidence analysis.
He said Yezzo’s work was found to be “credible.”
Yezzo resigned in 2009 after an internal investigation found issues with her forensics work. She left two years before DeWine took office.
DeWine said Yezzo’s background might have affected cases if it had come out in court during her career at BCI.
“I think a defense lawyer certainly would’ve been able to do some very good cross examination based on that (information),” he said.
Karen Huey, assistant superintendent of BCI, said there wasn’t a need for an outside review.
“If we had identified something that we thought needed an outside review, we could do that,” she said.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecutors Association, said his organization supports DeWine's stance on how to handle the controversy surrounding Yezzo.
"He looked at more than 100 cases and didn’t find anything wrong," said Murphy. "I think we should wait to see if defense lawyers come forward and want to look at convictions again. We think that’s reasonable."
The American Board of Criminalistics strictly defines the role of forensic scientists to render opinions and conclusions about the evidence in the case only.
Their policy states criminalists such as Yezzo must “maintain an attitude of independence and impartiality in order to ensure an unbiased analysis of the evidence.”
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences has a similar policy, but goes further to state that forensic scientists should “do nothing which would imply partisanship or any interest in a case except the proof of the facts.”
Yezzo was a member of both of those governing organizations while employed at BCI.
As expected, defense attorneys strongly disagree with DeWine's internal review and say it isn't credible. They say they have no idea how the review was conducted, which cases were selected for review and what criteria were used.
"We will never know the real truth until they bring in an outside agency to do an audit of her cases," said Jon Saia, president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who has served as a defense attorney for nearly 30 years. "If they don’t do that, then the attorney general is just hiding the truth from us. This was a leading expert witness from the state. An investigation needs to be launched and things need to be corrected."
Others are hopeful DeWine's office will be cooperative and provide documents and information while Yezzo's work is reviewed by the defense lawyer organizations.
"The two cases we have looked at so far show serious problems. That's 2 for 2," said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project which is based at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. "Given the egregious nature of the problem, our task force will be attempting to review every case, and we hope that BCI and the AG's office will assist us in supplying the needed documentation."