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Bloodletting?

If one of the reasons cited by the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office for its recent firing of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson is legitimate, other employees of the medical examiner should be forewarned: Don't work too much.

But if Johnson's take on the reason she was fired is correct, then the medical examiner's staff should take away another message: Abandon your scientific objectivity if your work doesn't conform to what cops and prosecutors think.

Johnson, a molecular biologist who had headed the county's DNA laboratory for five years, was informed on the Friday before Christmas that the M.E.'s office no longer needed her services. A memo to Johnson from her boss, Dr. Ashraf Mozayani, the medical examiner's chief toxicologist, indicates Johnson was terminated because she was disregarding her superiors' orders by putting in too many hours at the lab.

But Johnson firmly believes there was another motive for her firing -- that she refused to be a "team player" with police and prosecutors in the investigation of murder suspect Joe Vincent Durrett. Johnson's dismissal came 15 days after she had testified before a grand jury that reindicted Durrett for the 1995 murders of his ex-wife Martha Parmer and her sister Linda Harrison, who were found bludgeoned to death in the Pasadena home they shared.

A previous indictment of Durrett was dropped last year after tests that Johnson conducted on blood from the double-murder scene failed to support the conclusion by Pasadena investigators and the district attorney's office that Durrett was responsible for the killings. After the initial charges were dismissed, the D.A.'s office took the extraordinary step of having five of Johnson's case files subpoenaed by another grand jury and requesting that outside experts scrutinize her groundbreaking but controversial DNA testing techniques.

Johnson does plead guilty to working more hours than instructed, but says she did so out of necessity. The medical examiner's DNA lab has been understaffed since last summer, when the lab's serologist quit and an administrative assistant was reassigned. Compounding the manpower shortage, one of the two DNA analysts who worked in the lab under Johnson has recently been on vacation. Nevertheless, Johnson says, she and her two staffers were given more work and responsibility. In addition to being told to handle the serologist's job, Johnson and her assistants were assigned to oversee the intake and release of evidence, a job previously performed by a separate division of the M.E.'s office.

As a salaried employee, Johnson was never eligible for overtime pay. But after Dr. Joye Carter took over as the county's chief medical examiner last summer, Johnson says, she and her assistants were told that they needed approval to seek compensatory time for overtime beyond an eight-hour day -- approval that was not often granted.

"When they told us we couldn't work any comp time," says Johnson, "we just started giving the time away for free because we just could not keep up with the workload."

Two days before Johnson was let go, Mozayani informed her of a new policy that restricted working hours at the lab to between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Johnson says she pointed out that other DNA labs are often open 12 hours a day, because "some of these things could not be done in an eight-hour day." But her argument failed to sway Mozayani, who was brought to the M.E.'s office by Carter.

"I was told Dr. Carter wanted it this way," Johnson says of the restricted hours of operation.

Johnson acknowledges that she did not clear out of the building until 5:30 or 5:45 on the afternoon of the day following her notification of Carter's dictum. The next morning she was handed her walking papers.

"Your time sheet recording of time and your unauthorized attempts to obtain compensatory time have been discussed with you on numerous occasions," reads Mozayani's December 20 memo. "These actions, as well as others, have reflected your continued insubordination to authority."

Neither Carter nor Mozayani returned calls from the Press. But Alex Conforti, chief administrator of the medical examiner's office, while declining to comment on Johnson's termination, did confirm that the DNA lab is indeed understaffed.

As of this writing, in fact, "understaffed" is a dire understatement. One of Johnson's two assistants, Monica Puppi, resigned last week, and the other, Sara Bowne, submitted her resignation this week, leaving the DNA lab unstaffed. Their departures came at an especially inopportune time for Carter, who, according to Puppi, had promised that the M.E.'s office would quickly identify the remains of the victims of the December 22 explosion at the Wyman-Gordon Forging plant. Those identifications will rest heavily on DNA work. After the Wyman-Gordon tragedy, Carter and Mozayani suddenly rescinded the order that the DNA lab be vacated by 5 p.m.

 

"I was basically told to work around the clock," says Puppi.
"It's very interesting how rules are created and destroyed in the blink of an eye," Puppi wrote in her resignation letter to Carter. "When we needed more hands the most, we only lost the hands we already had .... I do not wish to be part of this working environment anymore."

That "environment" apparently required that employees shade the truth in order to get their jobs done.

The issue of comp time came to a head this fall when Johnson and another assistant worked more hours than their time sheets reflected. In October, says Johnson, she and her assistant had to hurriedly complete work on evidence in a case that prosecutors were about to take to trial. Together, over a four-week period, they put in 30 hours of extra time, but they only filed for three hours of comp time each -- without Mozayani's approval.

Johnson claims Mozayani was livid, even though Johnson tried to explain that she really didn't want the time off -- just a more accurate accounting of her time, in case the attorney for the defense questioned how long she had spent analyzing the evidence.

"After that, everyone in the lab just went back to filling out inaccurate time sheets [that only reflected 40-hour weeks] in order to deal with the workload," says Johnson.

Johnson's only other request for comp time came last month, after, she says, the chief toxicologist allowed her to work 6.6 hours of overtime on a grant proposal from the DNA lab to the National Institute of Justice.

"I guess I was good enough to work on her grant but not in her lab," Johnson laughs.

Whatever the case, Johnson's not buying Mozayani's explanation for her dismissal.

"I am sure my firing is related to the Durrett case," she says. "The funny thing is, they can't come up with anything better than my staying past lab hours."

From the beginning, the Durrett case has been a peculiar one. A few days after his ex-wife and her sister were murdered, the 46-year-old Durrett was shot and wounded in the driveway outside his home. No arrest was made in that incident, but Durrett was quickly deemed the prime suspect in the Parmer-Harrison killings by the Pasadena Police Department, which had received reports that he had been harassing the women before the murders.

While still hospitalized, Durrett was charged with two counts of capital murder after initial tests by the M.E.'s office determined that tufts of hair found in a bloody clump in one of Parmer's hands likely were from Durrett.

But a closer examination of that evidence by Johnson indicated that the original testing had been faulty, and thereafter the case against Durrett unraveled. Although Johnson's findings did not mean that Durrett was not the killer, her DNA testing on the blood and hair samples found at the murder scene indicated it was unlikely that they were from Durrett.

Those results set off a scramble to discredit Johnson. But after an independent lab verified Johnson's work, the district attorney's office dropped the charges against Durrett.

Still, detectives and prosecutors continued to raise doubts about Johnson's methodology. At issue was the technique she used: PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, one of two types of DNA analysis. The PCR method is employed when there is a limited amount of DNA available for testing. It is not a new process, but Johnson claims to have refined the procedure so that it is possible to determine the gender of a donor of a DNA sample.

Last February, the district attorney's office subpoenaed Johnson to appear before a county grand jury with her files on the Parmer-Harrison murders and four other cases. The files were then turned over to two DNA experts -- one a retired FBI examiner -- for review. In July, the D.A.'s office informed Johnson that neither reviewer had found fault with her findings or methodology.

Last month, however, Johnson was called before yet another grand jury considering the Parmer-Harrison murders. Although Johnson's findings had not changed, Durrett was reindicted. Durrett's attorney, Katherine Scardino, agrees with Johnson that her firing two weeks later was no mere coincidence.

"It's obvious Libby Johnson has a hell of a whistle-blower lawsuit," says Scardino. "It's up to her as to what she does toward that end. But there are also all sorts of legal options open to me, and I intend to take the offensive and do something about it right away."

Specifically, Scardino says she is not convinced that the medical examiner's office has been forthcoming in answering her Open Records requests for documents pertaining to her client.

 

Scardino says that shortly after Johnson tested the blood and hair samples in the Durrett case, she brought the discrepancies in the results to the attention of assistant district attorney Craig Goodhart. The prosecutor met with Johnson and other analysts working on the case. The first part of the meeting was tape recorded by a member of the M.E.'s staff. But Johnson was asked to leave before the meeting concluded, and Scardino wants to know if the rest of the meeting was recorded and, if so, where the tape is. (Goodhart, who is no longer assigned to the Durrett case, declined comment.)

As for Durrett's reindictment, Scardino says she doesn't see what could have changed since the original charges were dismissed.

But District Attorney Johnny Holmes says prosecutors do indeed have new evidence. He declined to be more specific, except to say that the new information has nothing to do with lab results.

"I am real confident that the folks that have handled this case don't believe that the wrong man has been charged," says the district attorney. "But we're not the final arbiter of that. If we were, Mr. Durrett would already be in the penitentiary."

Holmes also denies that his office had anything to do with Johnson's firing.
"To my knowledge, there is no one here who did that," says Holmes. "We did have concerns [with Johnson's work]. And not just in the Durrett case. Durrett was kind of the final straw. But the work that we did in hiring outside folks to kind of look over her shoulder did not justify in my mind [continued] criticism of her work. Based upon our experience in Durrett and those other cases, for anyone [from the D.A.'s office] to recommend that she be terminated would be on shaky ground."

Whatever the real reason or reasons for her termination from her $52,000-a-year job, Johnson does indeed plan to sue the medical examiner's office.

She has also made a promise to herself.
"As God as my witness, I will never work for the government again," says Johnson.

At least not too hard.


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