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Prosecutor's Days in Saddle Ending in Controversy

Law: Oklahoma's 'Cowboy Bob' is retiring early after record number of death penalty convictions.

May 17, 2001|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — With public confidence crumbling around him, a record-setting death penalty prosecutor is hanging up his cowboy hat.

Since announcing his early retirement this month, famously flamboyant Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. Robert H. Macy has retreated into uncharacteristic silence. This probably isn't the exit "Cowboy Bob" had in mind.

But these aren't exactly glory days in the Oklahoma courts.

Hundreds of the state's criminal cases are being reexamined because of an FBI report that revealed deep problems with the work of a longtime police lab chemist. While investigators ponder whether innocent people have been sent off to prison cells or, worse yet, death gurneys, Macy's legacy hangs in limbo.

And there's little room for bravado from a man whose boasts of death penalty prowess helped keep him in office for 21 years.

"He'll be criticized for being overzealous," said defense lawyer Doug Parr. "His conduct may very well have set the stage . . . whereby others thought it was OK to step over the line."

Appointed just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court resurrected the death penalty, Macy hammered away, murder trial by murder trial, until Oklahoma County's no-nonsense courts made a name for themselves.

The silver-haired, tough-talking prosecutor--who declined to be interviewed for this story--sent 54 men and women off to death row, more than any other current prosecutor in the U.S.

Macy, the son of an Indianapolis truck driver, got his first taste of criminal justice when he moonlighted as a street cop to pay his way through law school at the University of Oklahoma.

By all accounts, Macy is a tough old salt in gleaming boots, matching cowboy hats and string ties. At 70, he still ropes steer in the Lazy E Arena north of town. But around the courthouse, folks say he's grown thinner, quieter, more distracted.

"He's not the robust guy he used to be," said Jack Dempsey Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Assn.

Oklahoma City's troubles hit the boiling point recently when a sample examination by the FBI showed that a police chemist had flubbed or misrepresented hair and fiber evidence in five out of eight criminal trials.

Now thousands of convictions that hinged on Joyce Gilchrist's testimony are being reexamined. And outrage is rising from the long-trusting Oklahoma public.

Gilchrist worked on 1,700 cases tried by Macy's office. The chemist's testimony helped put 23 people on death row--11 have already been executed.

Earlier this month, a gaunt, weary-eyed man named Jeffrey Pierce walked out of prison after the FBI concluded that a semen sample wasn't his after all. Thanks to Gilchrist's flawed testimony, Pierce lost 15 years behind bars on a bogus rape conviction. His twin sons, now teenagers, have never known their father.

Gilchrist is on paid leave while the state and FBI investigate her work.

The district attorney's office, meanwhile, is trying to distance itself from the Gilchrist scandal.

"No matter what happens with that case, it's not going to tarnish our image," Assistant Dist. Atty. David Prater said. Macy "wasn't involved in the situation, even if something was done wrong."

But in retrospect, courthouse regulars are forced to admit that the gripes about Gilchrist were long-standing. Defense attorneys and fellow scientists began complaining about her work in the mid-1980s--and Macy over the years defended Gilchrist's testimony.

"A gung-ho district attorney like that may be more interested in prosecutions than in getting it right," said New York defense lawyer Barry Scheck, head of a task force formed to examine forensic fraud. "His office had a responsibility to make a serious inquiry. For years, everyone knew Joyce Gilchrist was a problem."

Macy's own record isn't exactly rosy. Judges periodically have rapped his knuckles for offering improper arguments, withholding evidence and misleading the jury. Two of the men he helped send to death row later were cleared.

But those transgressions had few political consequences. On the contrary, Macy's string of prosecutions paid off in wild popularity. In his five bids for reelection, he never collected less than 75% of the vote.

"This is very much a law-and-order part of the country," Prater said. "People here want somebody who's going to stand up and protect them."

Deeply outraged over the 1995 bombing of the downtown federal building, Macy swore he'd avenge the blast's 168 deaths. Even after terrorist Timothy J. McVeigh was convicted in federal court, Macy tried to bring the killer back to Oklahoma to stand trial on state murder charges.

In a letter from his prison cell, McVeigh called Macy a "bloodthirsty killer hiding behind the law."

His zeal for justice eventually led the hard-nosed district attorney into trouble. In October, Macy was kicked off the state murder case against McVeigh's co-conspirator, Terry L. Nichols. A state judge ruled Macy had violated rules of professional conduct by vowing to put Nichols to death.

After that, rumors of Macy's resignation began to crackle. His summer retirement will chop a year and a half off his scheduled run.

"When you tried a case against Bob Macy, you had to have your act together. He'd come at you with his teeth bared," Pointer said.

"Need I say, it'll be a tough act to follow?"

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