CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- George Castelle, the chief public defender in Kanawha County, sees a parallel in the way the West Virginia State Police responds to allegations of police brutality and a scandal at the State Police forensic lab almost 20 years ago.
In both cases the agency vigorously opposed any oversight.
Castelle spoke last year in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington about forensic science reform. He's grappled with the issue since the early 1990s, when a State Police trooper and serologist named Fred Zain was found to have falsified biological tests for more than a decade.
Eventually, the state Supreme Court threw out every test performed by Zain in his time at the crime lab. Five prisoners were exonerated by DNA testing in Zain cases. They spent a total of 33 years in prison before being released. Castelle represented the interests of 216 prisoners involved in Zain cases.
"Because biological evidence was preserved for retesting in only a minority of the West Virginia cases, the actual number of innocent prisoners in West Virginia -- including those still in prison today -- will never be known," Castelle told U.S. senators last year.
Zain's career started to unravel when Glen Dale Woodall, who was convicted of raping two women in 1987, was freed on the basis of DNA evidence. Woodall spent five years in prison before being freed.
Woodall was arrested by State Police Trooper B.R. Lester. Several years before, Woodall's cousins had written letters to the Lincoln Journal accusing Lester of attacking and injuring several local residents.
The letters prompted a 1981 internal investigation by State Police that concluded there was no definite evidence that Lester beat suspects. The report did, however, recommend that Lester be moved from the Hamlin detachment because too many residents believed he was a political operative for Wylie Stowers, the leader of Lincoln County's Democratic Party.