Former state lab worker breaks silence on Nick Clavier case: ‘I still carry a lot of guilt’

Stephanie Walcott: 'It was so frustrating to watch how this case played out'
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Posted at 12:51 PM, Jul 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-18 18:32:31-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — A fatal shooting in Chesterfield County, that was first ruled as a suicide and eventually reopened as a homicide after a years-long CBS 6 investigation, could have been solved much sooner, a former firearms analyst with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science said.

“It was so frustrating to watch how this case played out,” Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Forensic Science Professor Stephanie Walcott said.

Walcott, now an assistant professor in the Forensic Science department at VCU, is teaching her students about the Nick Clavier case.

The case involved one fatal gunshot and nearly three years of searching for the truth about who pulled the trigger.

FBI assisting Chesterfield police with investigation into Nick Clavier’s death

Local News

Police said he shot himself. His wife said that didn’t add up. She was right.

Laura French
8:45 PM, Dec 11, 2018

“I came home and shed tears over this case. I stayed up at night, I lost sleep over it, just knowing that a family so close in my community was suffering needlessly and there was nothing I could do about it. I signed that code of ethics when I signed up for the crime lab,” Walcott said.

Walcott was working in firearms analysis at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science on the October 2015 day Nick Clavier was shot on Hull Street Road while driving with his four children.

“I saw the guy pointing a gun. I heard a loud noise. I looked over and saw my dad. He was bleeding and blood was going everywhere. He was a really nice man, he didn't deserve to die,” Nick’s daughter Mikayla told CBS 6 after her father's death.

A then nine-year-old Mikayla Clavier described witnessing her father’s murder from the passenger's seat of the car.

FBI assisting Chesterfield police with investigation into Nick Clavier’s death
Nick Clavier and two of his four children.

Through the CBS 6 documentary "Didn't Add Up,” Walcott has spent the last few years using the investigation as a case study for her students.

“I think it's great. I think our investigative process, by its nature, is an imperfect and iterative process and so anytime we have an opportunity to learn from a case in the past, to inform investigations in the future, that's a plus for everybody,” Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said.

Walcott takes her classes through the evidence of the case, and talks about ethics and some of her regrets.

“It really turned into a battle between my own personal moral beliefs of knowing that there's information that could really drive the case in a totally different direction and that we had no control over disseminating that information,” said Walcott. “As an employee within the laboratory, I was held to a confidentiality ethical standard and there's really nothing that anybody could do, at least at my level right at the forensic scientist."

VCU Assistant Forensic Science Professor Stephanie Walcott
VCU Assistant Forensic Science Professor Stephanie Walcott

In May 2017, CBS 6 reported that ballistics from December 2016 done on the bullet from Nick’s brain could not have been fired from the gun recovered in his car and that the Medical Examiner changed the manner of death from accidental to undetermined making it impossible to exclude homicide.

However, at that time it wasn’t enough to convince the Chesterfield Police Department to reopen the case.

They had ruled his gun accidentally misfired in the vehicle.

“There was just a whole lot of frustration and conversations going on behind the scenes. This is the first time in my career and 20 years of being in forensic science that I've actually witnessed a law enforcement agency in this time period, right and modern-day forensic science completely disregard forensic analysis and analytical results, and basically tell us that they think that we're wrong, and to move on from that without a second thought,” said Walcott.

Chesterfield County Police Department
Chesterfield County Police Department

It took almost a year after our May 2017 investigation for police to rule Nick Clavier’s death as a homicide.

Nearly three years to link his death to Jerquell Cheatham, who police say was also responsible for murdering Mark Jefferson in Richmond hours later.

Cheatham was murdered in a road rage incident three months after he shot Clavier.

“I still carry a lot of guilt and it brings me back to the emotions I started feeling at the time I shed a lot of tears over this case,” Walcott explained to Nick’s widow, Melody, in a meeting CBS 6 arranged.

Reporter Laura French, Melody Clavier and Stephanie Walcott
Reporter Laura French, Melody Clavier and Stephanie Walcott

Walcott visited the Clavier family and shared some of what she couldn’t talk about with them years prior on a case that wasn’t hers but nonetheless, she said affected her deeply.

“The first signs that really got dismissed were the gunshot residue analysis; there's just no way a firearm would be discharged like that without one spec of primer residue,” said Walcott.

“Did you know they took gunshot residue on all of your children?” Problem Solver Laura French asked Clavier.

“No, actually I was told there was too much blood and matter for that to be possible,” Clavier responded.

CBS 6 has obtained a Certificate of Analysis report dated December 30, 2015, which showed that primer residue kits on Nick and all four of his children were performed and results were returned to CCPD by 11/03/15 and 12/09/15.

The report stated that it was consistent with an individual not having fired a weapon inside the vehicle.

Chesterfield County Police Chief Col. Jeffrey Katz
Chesterfield County Police Chief Col. Jeffrey Katz

That was two months after Nick Clavier’s murder and two years before Col. Jeffrey Katz took over the department.

“I think it's important that we recognize that these investigations are very complex and that you have imperfect people working with imperfect information, trying to make reasonable inferences as to what happened and that's the nature of an investigation,” said Katz. “But there's absolutely no reason whatsoever that information should not be shared, that is not of a critical need-to-know basis in an investigation, we have to be as transparent as possible, in every way we can. But there are times where we have to hold back specific information for the investigative process.”

“I’m very pleased with how things ended and where things are currently, but it also needs to be made sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Clavier.

Melody Clavier
Melody Clavier

Walcott said she was doing her part from the classroom and is urging the Commonwealth to do more.

“I feel like Virginia is lacking some sort of neutral party that can come in and settle disputes when the dispute is between analytical results, " Walcott said. “Either things like this, where a crime goes on uninvestigated or ends in potentially wrongful convictions. Those are kind of the two extremes on the spectrum. Without some sort of built-in mechanism, if one of those entities sees something going wrong, even if it's with another entity, there has to be a way to report that without suffering consequences or retaliation.”

“I do absolutely believe that will be beneficial because it will reduce the chance of error. I believe, however, that this sort of institution of, sorry, I do believe with this sort of independence the professor is looking for is hard to get,” Syracuse University Professor Roger Koppl, Ph.D., said.

“The governance board for a crime lab should include both defense interests and prosecution interests as well as representatives of law enforcement,” said Koppl.

“My proposal is that there also be this occasional so-called random redundancy. Occasionally, we'll send the evidence to more than one lab. See if we get the same results, maybe we don't. If we don't, somebody needs to reform their practices,” he added.

Roger Koppl
Roger Koppl

Some evidence in the Clavier case was sent to outside labs which returned the same results as the state lab.

“I'm always open to opportunities for policing and criminal investigators to get to a better conclusion, perhaps quicker and I think we always have to be open to new ways of doing things,” said Katz. “Because if we keep doing things the way we have always done them, we'd be out patrolling on horses right now, and that's not good."

Walcott said to help avoid mistakes of the past you must invest in the future.

Samantha Carpenter
Samantha Carpenter

“These cases, like, like this one, and similar ones are so important for us to learn about because they are able to light a fire under us, as like future forensic examiners, and be able to get to the root of like, why we do what we do, and why it's so important for like families that suffer the consequences of their relatives, not being with them anymore,” VCU senior Samantha Carpenter said. “It's so important to like, get to the bottom of what really happened for them to get closure.”

CBS 6 reached out to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science which declined to comment on the Clavier case but Chief Deputy Director Mason Byrd said, “DFS is a nationally accredited forensic laboratory that provides scientific analysis and examination of evidence for state and local law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, and Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia, and as ordered by a court upon request for the defense. Our forensic scientists strive to provide accurate and timely results for law enforcement agencies to utilize in their investigations, but our scientists are not law enforcement investigators. Because DFS strives to remain unbiased in its examinations, the scientists typically do not have all the investigative information available to the submitting agency. The scientists will meet to discuss and interpret their conclusions with the investigating agency, and honestly and objectively answer any questions the agency might have.

VCU Assistant Forensic Science Professor Stephanie Walcott

If a law enforcement agency has a complaint regarding DFS’s analysis on a particular case, they can bring it to the laboratory’s attention or file a formal complaint with the Forensic Science Board, which is the Department’s oversight policy board.

As an accredited laboratory, DFS must maintain the confidentiality of the information it obtains during its analysis of evidence. Without the submitting law enforcement agency’s permission, it would be inappropriate for DFS to share such confidential case information with anyone other than that agency. Such a breach of confidentiality could potentially jeopardize the agency’s criminal investigation and the Department’s reputation for objective and impartial scientific analysis,” Byrd added.

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