Zain was hired as a chemist in the West Virginia state crime lab in 1977, with the rank of trooper in the West Virginia State Police, which ran the lab. He eventually rose to director of the serology department in the state Department of Public Safety.
It was later established that Zain had gained his position in the serology department on false credentials. He claimed to have graduated from West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. He had indeed majored in biology, but had graduated with a C average. He had never minored in chemistry, but had taken a few chemistry courses, all of which he either flunked or barely passed. He had also flunked an FBI course in forensic science. Nonetheless, no one checked his background.
Early on, Zain gained a reputation for being able to solve extremely difficult cases, and was looked on as a "god" by West Virginia district attorneys. His reputation was such that prosecutors throughout the country wanted to use him as an expert witness.
There were problems on the horizon, but Zain's supervisors chose to ignore them. In 1985, FBI lab director James Greer told the state police that Zain had failed basic courses in serology and testing bloodstains. No corrective action was taken. Later that year, two workers claimed to have seen Zain record results from blank test plates. However, these complaints were not taken seriously because it was well known the workers and Zain didn't get along well. Zain also gained a reputation for being very "pro-prosecution."
In 1989, Zain became chief of physical evidence at the Bexar County medical examiner's office. However, West Virginia prosecutors continued to call upon him because his results appeared to be more favorable than others.
West Virginia work discredited
In 1987, Glen Woodall was convicted of a series of grisly felonies at Huntington Mall, including two cases of sexual assault, principally on Zain's testimony regarding semen from one of the victims. Woodall was sentenced to 335 years in prison. However, in 1988, DNA testing—the first ever admitted as evidence at the state level in the United States—proved conclusively that Woodall was innocent, and the conviction was thrown out. Woodall's defense team conducted its own tests, which determined that Zain had used flawed blood-typing methods in tying the semen to Woodall. More seriously, it appeared that Zain had initially determined a piece of hair was unidentifiable pubic hair, but later changed his identification to hair from Woodall's beard. On that basis, Woodall was freed in 1992. Woodall subsequently sued the state for false imprisonment and won a $1 million settlement.
At the request of the state police, Kanawha County Prosecutor William Forbes began a criminal investigation. Forbes was so disturbed by what he found that he asked the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to appoint a special judge and a panel of lawyers and scientists to investigate the serology department. On November 4, 1993; Senior Circuit Court Judge James Holliday issued a report finding that Zain had engaged in a staggering litany of misconduct and outright fraud. According to the report, Zain had misstated evidence, falsified lab results and reported scientifically implausible results that may have resulted in as many as 134 people being wrongfully convicted. Holliday found that Zain's misconduct was so egregious that any testimony offered by Zain should be presumed as prima facie "invalid, unreliable, and inadmissible." It also found serious deficiencies in the serology division's quality-control procedures. The Supreme Court unanimously accepted Holliday's report on November 12, calling Zain's actions "egregious violations of the right of a defendant to a fair trial" and a "corruption of our legal system." An investigation in Texas found that while working with the Bexar County medical examiner's office found at least 180 cases in which fraud perpetrated by Zain may have led to wrongful convictions. The investigations in both states found numerous instances of Zain filing reports on tests that had never even been done, reporting negative results that would have cleared as suspect as positive, and describing inconclusive results as conclusive. Reviews over the cases he presided led to dropped charges and overturned convictions in multiple cases in West Virginia and Texas. West Virginia alone ended up paying out a combined total of $6.5 million to settle lawsuits by people who had been wrongfully convicted due to Zain.
Zain was charged with fraud, but his trial was put on indefinite hold after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. In 2001, he was charged on four counts of obtaining money under false pretenses, but the jury deadlocked. A new fraud trial was later scheduled for July 2003. In December 2002, Zain succumbed to his liver cancer and died in his Ormond Beach, Florida home.
- Newton, Michael (2007). The Encyclopedia of American Law Enforcement. New York City: Facts on File. ISBN 0816062900.
- West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruling on Zain case
- Chan, Sau. Scores of Convictions Reviewed as Chemist Faces Perjury Accusations. Associated Press, 1994-08-21.
- Rutherford, Tony. Former News Anchor Recalls ‘Mall Rapist’ Saga. HuntingtonNews.net, 2010-10-25.
- Court Invalidates a Decade of Blood Test Results in Criminal Cases. New York Times, 1993-11-12.
- William J. Tilstone, Kathleen A. Savage, and Leigh A. Clark: Forensic Science: An Encyclopedia of History, Methods, and Techniques, p. 34
- Who was Fred Zain?
- Former State Police chemist Fred Zain dies