Jury hears letter written by McCormack from jail

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

After his arrest in 2003, Barry McCormack told his brother his wife’s relatives’ “ loose lips” and “weak knees” landed him prison and urged him to be quiet in a letter he sent from Wildwood Pretrial Facility.

“Silence is golden ... . My lips are sealed how about yours?” McCormack wrote in the letter.

Jurors in the murder trial of McCormack listened as parts of the letter were read and witnesses testified about the events that led to McCormack’s arrest.

McCormack became a suspect in the murder after a bus driving job he held in the 1990s required him to have his fingerprints taken. The fingerprints were later matched to latent fingerprints found in Opal Fairchild’s house. A latent fingerprints is a fingerprint not visible to the naked eye until developed with powders or by other means.

Prior to McCormack’s arrest in 2003 investigators learned McCormack was living in Poteau, Okla. and made three trips to the area to gather information.

Investigators with Alaska State Troopers did not meet with McCormack until the second trip in September 2002, when they met him at his place of work and interviewed him.

During the interview two troopers asked McCormack about his life in Alaska and to explain why his fingerprints might be found in Fairchild’s house, the scene of her murder.

“He really could not offer any explanation for why they were there,” said David Hanson, an investigator and one of the two troopers who conducted the interview.

And troopers were surprised by McCormack’s response to an explanation of how Fairchild died, he said.

Troopers explained to McCormack that Fairchild had been shot, to which McCormack responded by saying he didn’t even own a handgun.

“Up to that point we hadn’t mentioned a handgun,” Hanson said.

Other comments also led troopers to think McCormack knew more than he was sharing.

“(He said) if there is a handgun, where is it?” Hanson said. “It was almost like he knew we didn’t have it.”

Troopers also asked McCormack about his employment history, to find out if McCormack might have had a work-related reason for entering Fairchild’s house before the murder that could explain why his fingerprints were found there.

In particular, troopers asked if McCormack had ever delivered newspapers.

A newspaper job might have explained why one of McCormack’s fingerprints was located on a newspaper found in Fairchild’s house and dated March 20, 1985, the day of Fairchild’s murder.

But McCormack said he had not delivered newspapers, and no other job that McCormack had in Alaska could explain why his fingerprints might end up in Fairchild’s home, Hanson said.

The latent fingerprint on the newspaper was one of two latent fingerprints found at the scene of the murder and was later identified as McCormack’s.

A second latent fingerprint also identified as McCormack’s was found on a piece of notepaper in Fairchild’s house.

The fingerprint matches were made in 2000 by Dale Bivins, who supervises the latent fingerprint section of the Alaska State Crime Lab in Anchorage.

Bivins said the latent fingerprint found on the newspaper contained more than enough information to make an identification.

But Assistant Public Defender Margaret Moran questioned the reliability of fingerprint identification.

On Friday, Bivins explained that once a fingerprint identification has been made by a latent fingerprint expert, that the latent fingerprint and known fingerprint are sent to a second fingerprint identification expert for verification. However, the verifying expert analyzing the prints knows the previous expert’s conclusions about the fingerprints and only compares the latent fingerprint to the fingerprint identified by the previous expert as a match.

Moran questioned the validity of a verification that did not ask the verifying expert to compare the latent fingerprints to more than one other set of prints.

However, Bivins said making the verifying expert compare multiple prints to the latent fingerprints in question could add weeks to the verification process.

“We just could not get our work done,” he said.

Bivins told jurors latent fingerprint identification depends on the skills of the expert making the identification, and that latent fingerprint identification experts are tested annually to gage their abilities.

When asked how well he has performed on latent fingerprint tests since he began latent fingerprint identification in 1998, Bivins said he has scored 100 percent proficiency on every test.

McCormack trial recap

· Barry McCormack, 55, has been in Wildwood Pretrial Facility since March 2003 awaiting trial for the murder of Opal Fairchild, a 65-year-old woman who was shot during an apparent robbery of her home on East Poppy Lane in Soldotna.

· McCormack is charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in the Fairchild slaying, allegedly committed March 20, 1985.

· Bullet fragments recovered from the scene of the murder matched a bullet connected to a violent robbery that occurred approximately two weeks earlier.

· About two weeks before before the Fairchild murder, Melvin Anderson was robbed at gunpoint in his woodstove retail store in Sterling. He was shot once in the head by the robber, who fled with about $500 from the cash register.

· Fingerprints found at both crime scenes reportedly matched, but were not linked to McCormack until 2000, when the troopers’ Criminal Investigation Bureau asked the state Crime Lab to conduct a follow-up search to compare latent fingerprints found at the Fairchild crime scene. They matched the fingerprints of McCormack, and subsequent analysis also matched latent prints from the Anderson crime scene to McCormack’s.

· McCormack cannot be charged in the Anderson robbery because the statute of limitations has run out on that crime. No limitation applies to murder cases in Alaska.

· Law enforcement officers continue to look for the possible murder weapon, a Ruger Speed Six .357 revolver with serial number 159-13540. Anyone with more information about the crimes, including information about the gun, is asked to call troopers at 262-4453 or Soldotna police at 262-4455.

· If convicted of murdering Fairchild, McCormack could face up to 99 years of imprisonment on each charge.

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