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Medical examiner's suspect work puts hundreds of cases in doubt

Published Oct. 6, 2005

In 1987, cemetery worker Glen Dale Woodall was sentenced to prison for double-life terms plus 325 years for kidnapping and raping two women. The key evidence was medical examiner Fred Zain's testimony that he found Woodall's semen in both victims.

Woodall, who fervently maintained his innocence, spent almost five years in prison before Lonnie Simmons, his lawyer, had remnants of the semen from the victims tested with new DNA methods.

Those tests showed there was no match with Woodall's semen, Simmons said.

Someone else had raped the women.

After official tests corroborated those ordered by Simmons, Woodall's conviction was overturned.

Now, leading forensic experts say hundreds of inmates in Texas and West Virginia may have been wrongly sentenced for murder and rape because Zain falsified forensic evidence. Zain _ who denies the allegations _ has not been criminally charged in either state.

Zain, 43, was a forensic expert _ a serologist _ for West Virginia State Police for 13 years, then chief serologist for San Antonio, Texas, for three years.

An analysis of his work shows, investigators say, that Zain consistently "fabricated or falsified evidence in just about every case he touched," according to a report done for the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Zain denies the allegations.

Investigators for the state convinced the West Virginia Supreme Court to order a complete examination of Zain's work. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors completed the study and told the court that the deficiencies of Zain's work were the "result of systematic practice rather than an occasional inadvertent error."

"At least 164 inmates in prisons here believe that key evidence presented in their trials was tainted in the serology labs and are asking for a review," said West Virginia public defender George Castelle, who was appointed to represent prisoners who could document Zain's involvement in their initial prosecution. "And the list is growing each week."

So far, 73 inmates convicted of murder and 65 sentenced for rape have asked to have cases reopened.

"This has been an unbelievable travesty of justice," Castelle said.

If true, what was Zain's motive?

"Zain was a prosecutor's dream," Castelle said. "If he needed blood or semen to match, Zain matched it. If the prosecutor didn't want to match skin or hair samples, they didn't match. He was completely pro-prosecution and may have been obsessed by being a hero to these guys and other cops."

As concern over Zain's performance started to be raised in West Virginia, he was running into problems in Texas, where he had moved in 1989. He was fired last June.

Irving Stone, of the Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas, led a team of specialists who examined at least 180 cases Zain had worked on during his three years in San Antonio.

He estimates that there are 4,500 criminal cases in doubt because of Zain's involvement.