Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Curtis McCarty

Cases involving Joyce Gilchrist
At about 2 a.m. on December 10, 1982, 18-year-old Pamela Kaye Willis, the daughter of an agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, was found dead inside a home in southwest Oklahoma City. She had been stabbed and strangled with a rope.

Police learned that five days earlier, on December 5, 1982, due to marital problems with his wife, Melanie, Dale Coffman had moved out of the house. Willis had moved in the same day. At about 1:15 a.m. on December 10, 1982, Dale called the house to talk with Melanie, but when the phone was answered no one spoke. He hung up and called again. This time he heard a woman's voice on the other end call out “help” or “Dale, help me.”

Coffman told police he drove by the house, noticed the lights were on, and Willis's car parked in front. Melanie's car was not there. He did not go inside, but went first to a nearby convenience store, and called the house to see if Melanie was there. No one answered. He drove back to the house and walked to the front porch where he noticed that one of the windows to the side of the front door was broken. He looked through the front door window and saw nothing. Coffman said he went to the side of the house and looked into the side windows where he observed a pair of bare legs on the floor between the dining room and the kitchen area.

He said he ran back to the front porch and beat on the door, but no one responded. He ran to get help. Dale called the police from a neighbor's home and then waited for them to arrive. The police arrived at around 2:00 a.m., within three or four minutes of the call. Willis’s naked body was found on the floor of the home.

Twenty-year-old Curtis McCarty became a suspect after police learned that he had sold LSD to Willis two days before she was killed. Several hairs were found on Willis and bedclothes, in addition to a hair that was found in a knife wound in Willis’s chest.

Hair from nearly two dozen men, including McCarty, were submitted for analysis to Joyce Gilchrist, a forensic chemist for the Oklahoma City police department. All were excluded as the source of the hairs.

McCarty was interviewed by police on March 15, 1983. He said that on the day before Willis was killed, Melanie Coffman called him asking for some “acid” for Willis. He said that while he was arranging to get the acid, Shawn McCarthy and Chas Kelly came to his house. McCarty said the three of them drove to Coffman’s house to deliver the acid. He said he went to a studio for band practice and went home.

Nearly a year after the murder, in September 1983, McCarty was arrested on a material witness warrant in the investigation of the disappearance of seven-year-old Janelle Fowler. At the same time police arrested the girl’s stepfather, Bryan Scott Friesenhahn, and Todd Osborne on charges of taking indecent liberties with a minor. Police alleged that the two men, who lived in the same mobile home as the girl, had molested the girl.

Ultimately, McCarty gave police directions to find the girl’s body after he was offered immunity in the case. In December 1983, Osborne pled guilty to murdering the girl and was sentenced to life in prison. Friesenhahn was released.

In a second statement to police, on March 6, 1985, McCarty said that he and a friend named Steve went to Coffman’s house at around 7 or 8 p.m. the night before she was killed to sell Willis more acid. McCarty said Willis told him she was going to buy acid from Shawn McCarthy later that night. He said he and Steve left, they drank some beer and ingested some drugs, and then he went home to bed. He said nothing about going to the music studio. McCarty speculated that McCarthy had killed Willis because she had burned McCarthy on a drug deal.

The following day, March 7, 1985, McCarty gave a third statement. In this statement, he said that he and Rick Terry, who was McCarty’s drug connection, went to the house. McCarty said he wanted to set Terry up with Willis so Terry could get sex from Willis in exchange for drugs. McCarty said that he would get extra drugs from Terry for arranging the sex for drugs transaction. He said he dropped Terry at the house and left.

On May 5, 1985, McCarty was arrested by Cleveland County police on a charge of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl from Moore, Oklahoma. McCarty was in custody on that charge when, on May 22, 1985, he was charged with Wilson’s murder. He was indicted along with an unnamed person on a charge of murder with malice aforethought. The unnamed person was never identified or charged.

On January 21, 1986, McCarty’s defense attorney filed a motion, requesting all scientific and technical reports as well as any hair, fiber, fingerprint, and serology samples for independent evaluation by a defense expert. On March 10, 1986—10 days before McCarty was set to begin trial—the defense said its expert was John Wilson. Gilchrist mailed the hair slides to Wilson, who was the chief forensic chemist at the regional crime Laboratory in Kansas City, Missouri. The slide arrived mid-day on March 17, the day the trial began in Oklahoma County District Court.

At trial, Gilchrist testified about four scalp hairs found on a bedsheet, one scalp hair found on a white sweater belonging to the victim, six scalp hairs found on the victim’s pajamas, and one that was on a sleeping bag. One pubic hair was found on the victim’s chest and one scalp hair was found from the knife wound. Gilchrist said that the hairs were microscopically “consistent in every respect” with hair samples from McCarty.

She said she had performed “literally thousands” of hair comparisons. “I have never seen hairs from two different people that were the same,” she told the jury.

At one point, a prosecutor asked Gilchrist, “You found six scalp hairs microscopically consistent in all respects with the known scalp hairs of the defendant, Mr. McCarty, is that correct?”

“That’s correct,” Gilchrist replied.

“Without any dissimilarities, is that correct?” the prosecutor asked.

“That’s correct,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist also testified that a single fragment of scalp hair removed from a screen that had been pulled back from the window in the bedroom exhibited similarities to McCarty’s scalp hair. However, because of the damage to this hair, she said no meaningful conclusion could be reached.

Gilchrist also testified that she had identified semen on vaginal swabs, rectal swabs, thigh swabs, pubic comings, the bedspread, and floor tile, as well as the victim’s underwear in sufficient quantities to perform serology analysis. She said that the source of the semen was someone with blood type A and that McCarty had type A blood. She said people with type A blood make up 30 percent of the population and that McCarty could not be excluded as the source of the semen.

Gilchrist said that a cigarette butt found floating in the toilet at the house had been tested for the presence of antigens. She said that several persons, including McCarty, could not be excluded as the source of the antigens.

Assistant District Attorney Barry Albert asked Gilchrist whether, based on her expertise and examination of the physical evidence, she had an opinion “as to whether Mr. McCarty was physically present at the time violence was done to Miss Willis.”

“He was in fact there,” Gilchrist declared.

John Hill, an Oklahoma City police fingerprint analyst, testified that McCarty was the source of a fingerprint on a vase. The prosecution noted that Melanie Coffman had reported she had wiped the vase with a cloth the day before the murder as part of her housekeeping routine.

The prosecution also presented evidence that the rope found around Willis’s neck was similar to rope that had been seen at the Air Refiners plant where McCarty worked.

Cindy Parks, a former girlfriend of McCarty, testified that a few weeks after Willis was killed, McCarty told her he killed Willis. “He said he had been hired to do it,” Parks testified. “She had taken some drugs or some money or something. It had something to do with a drug deal.”

“He said she was asleep in her bed and he slashed her throat,” Parks testified.

Theodore Elgin testified that while in the Oklahoma County jail, he heard McCarty discussing the murder of a girl with other jail inmates. Although he claimed he had no agreement with the prosecution, the defense noted that his pending felony charges had been dismissed.

The defense contended that because McCarty had been in the home in the past, the presence of his hair there was not inconsistent with innocence.

Wilson, the defense forensic expert, testified that the materials that Gilchrist had sent him did not indicate that pubic hair at the crime scene was consistent with McCarty’s hair. Gilchrist, during cross-examination, had admitted she had failed to include that fact, but said it was inadvertent. The prosecution contended that Wilson did not have enough time to accurately assess Gilchrist’s work.

On March 26, 1986, McCarty was convicted of first-degree murder. The case then moved to a death penalty hearing. Todd Osborne, who had pled guilty to murdering seven-year-old Janelle Fowler, now claimed that in fact McCarty had killed the girl with a baseball bat. “I saw him swing and hit her,” Osborne testified. “I saw him swing again. He was freaking out.”

The prosecution presented evidence that McCarty had pleaded guilty in October 1985 to a second-degree rape charge in Cleveland County and had been sentenced to five years in prison. The victim testified about the attack and how she feared for her life.

District Attorney Robert Macy, the lead prosecutor, urged the jury to sentence McCarty to death “in the name of justice.” On March 29, 1986, the jury sentenced McCarty to death.

On November 23, 1988, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court addressed the defense claim that the prosecution’s “tardiness” in disclosing Gilchrist’s report hamstrung the defense. “We agree,” the court said, and called the delay “inexcusable.” The court noted that the prosecution “took advantage of its own tardiness” to try to discredit the defense expert. Gilchrist’s report was “at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate and misleading,” the court said.

The court said that Gilchrist’s failure to include her conclusions on the hair report, “whether intentional or inadvertent” resulted in a “trial by ambush.”

The court ruled that Gilchrist’s testimony that McCarty was present at the time of the crime was erroneously allowed. “Ms. Gilchrist did, and could not, testify that such opinion was based on facts or data,” the court said. Her testimony was “an improper expert opinion,” the court said.

The Daily Oklahoman newspaper criticized the ruling as “judicial nitpicking.” The newspaper editorialized: “Another convicted killer has won a new trial because of an Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals majority that seems more interested in finding reasons to reverse than in upholding the death penalty.”

In September 1989, McCarty went to trial a second time. The jury deliberated for 17 hours—at one point declaring it was deadlocked at 11-to-1 in favor of conviction—before finally convicting McCarty on September 29, 1989. On October 2, 1989, the jury sentenced him to death a second time.

McCarty was then charged with the murder of Janelle Fowler. A defense motion to dismiss that case based on a promise of immunity was denied. However, months later, the prosecution dismissed the case.

On September 12, 1995, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma affirmed the conviction for the Willis murder, but remanded the case for resentencing. The court held the trial judge had erroneously refused a defense request to instruct the jury that a sentence of life without parole was an option. The Oklahoma legislature had enacted a provision in 1987 allowing for the sentence in death penalty cases.

On April 11, 1996, a new jury sentenced McCarty to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma affirmed the sentence on November 6, 1998.

In 1999, a federal judge overturned the death sentence of Alfred Brian Mitchell, who had been convicted of rape and murder in Oklahoma County. The judge found that Gilchrist had given false testimony regarding DNA evidence in Mitchell’s case. The ruling triggered an extensive investigation of Gilchrist by the Oklahoma City police department. Mitchell (who was later resentenced to death) and McCarty were among 23 men sentenced to death based in part on Gilchrist’s testimony. Eleven had been executed.

On September 25, 2001, Gilchrist was fired. Two days later, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating and the Oklahoma Attorney General authorized an investigation in cooperation with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) to discover whether people were wrongly convicted due to Gilchrist’s forensic work and provide them with legal services. On January 23, 2002, OIDS determined McCarty’s case fell under the mandate of the DNA Testing Program and funded the testing of the semen collected from Willis. The DNA results showed that McCarty was not the source of the semen.

As part of that investigation, forensic expert Brian Wraxall had reviewed Gilchrist’s testimony relating to the blood type analysis. In his report, said that her testimony that the semen was blood type A was false. Wraxall said that the acid phosphatase test that Gilchrist used was not specific for seminal acid phosphatase and that she falsely claimed that it was. Therefore, instead of limiting the source of the semen to 30 percent of the population, Wraxall said that 100 percent of the males in the population could not be excluded.

The Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law joined McCarty’s legal team in 2003 alongside attorneys Perry Hudson and Marna Franklin. DNA testing was performed on the semen, and McCarty was excluded. Attempts to locate the hairs in the case were unsuccessful.

In September 2003, McCarty’s legal team filed a second application for post-conviction relief. The petition was denied, but in April 2004, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered an evidentiary hearing.

Following the hearing, Oklahoma County District Judge Twyla Mason Gray ruled that Gilchrist “withheld evidence, most likely lost or intentionally destroyed important and potentially…exculpatory evidence, provided flawed laboratory analysis and documentation of her work, testified in a manner that exceeded acceptable limits of forensic science, and altered lab reports and handwritten notes in an effort to prevent detection of misconduct.” Judge Gray ruled that McCarty was entitled to a new trial.

On June 14, 2005, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. The court reversed McCarty's conviction, vacated his death sentence, and ordered a new trial. The court declined to rule on whether the prosecution knew of and was complicit in Gilchrist’s conduct. The court noted that the prosecution and the defense were aware in 1988 when it reversed McCarty’s conviction the first time that the court “was not particularly impressed with Ms. Gilchrist’s hair comparison techniques and unscientific opinions.”

“While the issue of who knew or should have known what in relation to Ms. Gilchrist’s opinions and credentials is fascinating and probably forever debatable (and currently the subject of pending litigation against Ms. Gilchrist and former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy), it is not necessary to resolve that issue here,” the court said.

In May 2007, at a pre-trial hearing, the prosecution argued that McCarty was responsible for the death of Willis even if the semen did not belong to him. McCarty’s legal team filed a motion to dismiss based on the missing hair evidence.

On May 11, 2007, the court found that Gilchrist had intentionally destroyed the hair evidence in 2000. The court dismissed the case, and McCarty was released. He had spent 21 years in prison, and 16 of those years on death row.

On December 7, 2007, McCarty filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City and Gilchrist. The lawsuit was dismissed because it was filed too late. McCarty appealed, and on July 14, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth circuit affirmed the dismissal.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 8/10/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1982
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes