By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Emily Dowdy walks into the small cinder-block room and, using her left arm to lift her right, shakes hands. At 5 feet 8 inches and 120 pounds, Dowdy appears skinny and slightly hunched, her blue eyes a bit wary. Her hair is no longer blond but brown, chopped off and spiky in a way that might be fashionable if she weren't wearing gray cotton pants and a gray shirt with the word "inmate" stenciled across her thin back.
For Dowdy, 31, life on the inside seems surreal. An environmental designer who once worked for the Dallas firm Scheirman & Associates, Dowdy now lives in a tiny cell with a woman convicted of murdering her spouse. Each day passes to the bark of an intercom calling "counts" and "movements" of prisoners at this maximum-security prison near Oklahoma City.
Her life can be divided into two segments: before and after The Accident. In between, there's a black hole in Dowdy's memory. In it, a young man died. Dowdy emerged alive but damaged, pulled from her flaming car and strapped onto a backboard, her neck broken.
In that black space, Dowdy was forever transformed from a hardworking college student into a convicted killer, depicted by Oklahoma County prosecutors as an unrepentant party girl who drank, drove and destroyed the life of Ryan Brewer. The 20-year-old son of a police captain, Brewer was caught in the path of Dowdy's car as she barreled the wrong way down an Oklahoma road one dark and drizzly morning in May 1999.
Dowdy, her lawyers and supporters believe that she killed Brewer after being slipped the date-rape drug gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) at an OKC dance club, and then fed more alcohol, assaulted and put into the front seat of her car. Dowdy has no memory of what happened for about four hours; amnesia is a side effect of the drug. Though no GHB was found in a blood test, that doesn't mean it wasn't there, since the drug disappears quickly from victims' bodies.
Six years and three trials later, the life Dowdy once dreamed of--career, marriage and children--is over. The jury in Dowdy's third trial in April 2004 convicted her of manslaughter and slammed her with a 40-year sentence, harsh punishment for someone who had never been charged with DWI or any other crime.
Brewer's death was a tragedy, but was justice really done? An investigation by the Dallas Observer reveals that Dowdy has been dragged through a judicial process rife with unethical behavior by members of Oklahoma County's law enforcement "brotherhood" determined to punish a drunken driver.
Prosecutorial misconduct ended Dowdy's first trial; the conviction and 25-year sentence in the second trial were overturned because the judge barred evidence of GHB intoxication. In her third trial, evidence shows the prosecutors manipulated witnesses and evidence, falsely portraying Dowdy as a remorseless party girl who didn't wear panties and continued to drink and drive after the accident. The judge's favoritism toward the district attorney's office was astounding.
"I've never witnessed such misconduct in a courtroom in my life," says Trinka Porrata, a former Los Angeles police officer. Perhaps the foremost authority on GHB addicts and victims in the country, Porrata teaches law enforcement officers about the drug's effects and how to investigate cases involving GHB. She's testified in numerous trials, most often for the prosecution.
"There were so many things that were inappropriate," Porrata says. "The sad thing about the whole case is that it's no longer about a cop's kid. It's now about the incestuous, petty, screwed-up, vindictive, bizarre attorney and judge community in that city."
Says Frosty Troy, editor of the Oklahoma Observer, "The girl you are talking about found herself in the middle of the rottenest criminal justice system in the United States."
The Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office has received scathing criticism in recent years from sources as disparate as former Los Angeles police Detective Mark Furhman and Amnesty International, which condemned its repeated misconduct in death row cases and draconian sentences in other crimes. Last December, a jury sentenced one man to 6,000 years in prison for armed robbery. Amnesty International singled out Dowdy's second trial and sentence of 25 years to illustrate how judges allow highly inflammatory statements from victims' families to influence juries.
Under the 21-year administration of famed District Attorney Bob Macy, the county racked up the highest rate of death penalty convictions in the country, sending 73 people to death row. In his 2003 book Death and Justice, Furhman says that Macy would show up at the scene of terrible crimes and handle opening and closing arguments in death cases; assistant district attorneys did the legwork and prepped him before trial.
Macy had a bag of tricks: misrepresenting facts, hiding exculpatory evidence, using "fire and brimstone" in closing arguments and breaking into tears at just the right moment for maximum jury impact. Macy and his assistants would invent scenarios to explain away evidence that didn't fit their theories. And they often relied on false or unscientific testimony from Macy's favorite forensic chemist, Joyce Gilchrist, of the Oklahoma City Police Department lab.
An African-American, Gilchrist was dubbed "Black Magic" by local lawyers. Police and prosecutors loved her. Defense attorneys feared her. In 2001, two years after Dowdy's accident, Gilchrist came under investigation for her testimony in more than 1,500 criminal cases. Her lab had no quality controls, and evidence handled by Gilchrist was often, in Furhman's words, "twisted, distorted, mishandled, mislabeled, lost and just plain perjured."