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The man hired by the D.C. government to get the city’s first forensic crime lab up and running made his name in Maryland. He also made some enemies.
On Jan. 3, 1992, Lisa O’Connell found her mother, Marlene Kilpatrick, lying on the bedroom floor of her home in Arnold, Md., dead, with a knife sticking out of her chest. Kilpatrick’s skull had been smashed, and fuel-injection cleaner had been poured in her mouth and on her face.
With saliva from a soda bottle found in the kitchen, Maryland police used a new forensic technique to pin down a suspect: Albert Givens, a handyman who did work for Kilpatrick.
William Vosburgh, now the District’s crime lab project manager—then a Maryland state forensic scientist—identified the murder weapon.
Of the roughly 150 items in Givens’ toolbox, everything was greasy and grimy except for a large crescent wrench at the bottom. Vosburgh testified that the wrench came up positive in a preliminary test for blood; Givens was convicted after five days of trial in April 1993.
But a federal judge threw out the conviction in February 1999 after determining Givens’ lawyers had failed to call to the stand a chemist from the state police crime lab whose findings didn’t match Vosburgh’s. According to the judge, they also failed to call an FBI crime lab technician who reviewed the case and could not say for certain that Givens’ wrench had crushed Kilpatrick’s skull.
Givens’ new attorneys asked for Vosburgh’s bench notes—and found something new: Vosburgh hadn’t reported that five days before the wrench tested positive for blood, he’d conducted the same test and came up with the opposite result. The positive test was thrown out on the grounds that it had only been a preliminary, “presumptive” test, not a conclusive one, so the judge ruled jurors shouldn’t hear about it (further analysis by an outside lab didn’t confirm the presence of blood). From then on, prosecutors’ main argument about the wrench was that it was suspiciously clean among Givens’ other tools. The jury deadlocked.
Givens has been retried four times; his latest conviction is currently on appeal. His lawyers, Maryland public defenders Patrick Kent and William Davis, say he might never have been convicted in the first place had Vosburgh reported his initial findings about the wrench, and that not doing so was an unforgivable offense.
They say the D.C. Council should evaluate whether Vosburgh is an appropriate choice to head the District’s crime lab, a $200 million facility expected to open in Southwest in 2010. District cases are currently handled at the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va. “There simply is nothing more corrosive to the criminal justice system than the failure of a forensic analyst to disclose a patently exculpatory test result in a murder case,” the lawyers write in a joint statement.
Maryland prosecutors wholeheartedly disagree that without the blood test the wrench couldn’t have been the murder weapon; they say the cleanliness of the wrench was plenty to make it suspicious. And they say Vosburgh did nothing wrong.
“To the extent that they are saying he deliberately or otherwise withheld that information, that’s absolutely not true,” says Virginia Miles, a Maryland assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted the Givens case.
Vosburgh also denies that he did anything wrong in the Givens case and argues there was nothing abnormal about his methods.
“If nothing but negatives were found, that is reported as such: ‘Presumptive test(s) for blood were negative on this item.’ If a single positive is found, that is reported: ‘Presumptive test(s) for blood were positive on this item’; not that some of the other tests on the item were negative,” he writes in an e-mail. “This is not a mistake or withholding of anything, it is the way this was done in 1992 by all forensic labs.”
The Maryland defenders say they are shocked Vosburgh acknowledges he didn’t report the negative test result along with the positive one and doesn’t admit he made a mistake. Stephen Mercer, a Maryland lawyer who is contracted by the defender’s office for cases involving DNA, says, “A reasonable expectation for what is going to happen when he is setting policies and procedures [for the new lab] is that his bad habits are going to spill onto others.”
Vosburgh also provided expertise in the high-profile capital murder trial of Scotland Williams, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for murdering two D.C.-based attorneys. In this notorious case, Vosburgh’s key testimony linked the defendant to the crime based on saliva—he said cells from spit smudges on a glass were consistent with those of a “person of color.”
Michele Nethercott, the public defender who represented Williams, says Vosburgh is a “partisan of the prosecution” who produced this testimony because he knew prosecutors needed to pin the crime on Williams, a black man. The testimony didn’t have a significant effect on the outcome of the case, but Nethercott calls it a good example of Vosburgh’s bias.
“It was absolute nonsense. You simply cannot look at the cells he looked at and make any supportable scientific statement about the race of the depositor of these cells,” she says.
Vosburgh disagrees that there was anything improper about his testimony, and he takes major umbrage with Nethercott’s characterization of him as playing favorites with prosecutors.
“My only friend in a courtroom is the judge, not the prosecutor,” he says, pointing out that he has also provided expertise to defense lawyers as a private consultant. “A lot of the work we [forensic scientists] do exonerates people.…To be able to clear someone is a very happy day as well. It validates what I do.”
To counter questions of Vosburgh’s integrity, Miles says Vosburgh refused to go along with a theory in the Givens case that would have been highly compelling to jurors. It had to do with blood on the ceiling and upper walls of Marlene Kilpatrick’s kitchen.
“Dr. Vosburgh looked at the blood-spatter pattern interpretation and said, ‘No, I don’t see that.’ He knocked us off that theory.”
Over the years, Vosburgh has become something of a local celebrity in the forensics scene (he has appeared on America’s Most Wanted), and the D.C. government has gone to great lengths to nab him as its premier white coat. In 2006, then chief Charles Ramsey described Vosburgh as “a highly qualified forensic scientist who helped to develop crime labs for the police departments of both Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County.”
Chief Cathy Lanier also sang Vosburgh’s praises in a recent letter to the editor of the Washington Examiner in response to criticism about the slowness in getting the lab running.
As with the labs in Maryland, Vosburgh is heavily involved in the design, development, and implementation of the District’s lab. And he hopes to be in charge when it’s finally completed.
“Basically, I hope to become a District employee and be the laboratory chief for the foreseeable future,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”