State finds five more prisoners convicted partially on evidence from controversial forensic scientist
May 30, 2003
By ERICKA SCHENCK SMITH of the Missoulian
Following the exoneration of two men convicted of rape based on the hair analysis of former State Crime Lab director Arnold Melnikoff, the state Justice Department has discovered five others who remain in prison after trials in which Melnikoff testified.
In all, the department found about 300 hair analysis reports Melnikoff had written before he left the lab in 1989, but it remains to be seen how many of those cases led to convictions or guilty pleas - and how many of those turned on Melnikoff's work. Attorney General Mike McGrath met with the crime lab's advisory board Thursday to decide what to do next.
The problem with Melnikoff's hair analysis, McGrath said, is a claim the forensic scientist repeatedly made that there is only a 1-in-a-100 chance that a hair belonging to one person will match a hair belonging to another person.
"That testimony, frankly, isn't supported," McGrath said.
In both recent exonerations, Melnikoff testified that head and pubic hairs found at the crime scenes were indistinguishable from the defendants'. He claimed the double matches meant there was only one chance in 10,000 that the hairs at the scene did not belong to the defendants. But DNA evidence later proved both men innocent.
Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who served 15 years for the rape of an 8-year-old girl, is now free. Paul Kordonowy is now known to be innocent in a 1987 rape but remains in prison for another committed in 1989. He confessed to the second rape but refused to confess to the first.
Melnikoff's attorney, Rocco Treppiedi of Spokane, attended Thursday's meeting and defended his client's work. Melnikoff is now on administrative leave from a forensics job with the Washington State Patrol.
Melnikoff "has not been found to have done anything at all improper" following a review of his last three years' work in Washington, Treppiedi said. Treppiedi also said Melnikoff's assumptions about hair analysis didn't simply fall from the sky: He was working off published research and discussions with other professionals in the field.
"He was doing his job as a forensic scientist as he understood it back then," Treppiedi said.
Regardless, the science has changed, McGrath said. And the state has some obligation to determine if mistakes were made in Melnikoff's Montana cases.
Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project in New York has asked McGrath to appoint an independent committee to review all of the scientist's work, not just the hair analysis cases. The advisory board left that option open Thursday, while agreeing that the best course of action now is to tell the 20-odd people still in prison that there may have been errors in the work Melnikoff did in their cases.
Of those prisoners, Melnikoff testified in five of their trials, while the remainder pleaded guilty. Reviews of the trials presented to the board show that hair was not the only evidence pointing to the defendants' guilt.
Next, the Justice Department will continue looking into Melnikoff's remaining hair analysis reports to determine how many cases actually went to court. Those defendants, if they pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury, will also be notified.
Several board members said they would also like a review of Melnikoff's fiber analysis work. Like hair analysis, it can be subjective.
"That's where he went wrong more than anything else was just kind of inflating what he could tell you," said Lewis and Clark County Public Defender Randi Hood, a member of the board.
And, finally, the board members said they wanted to ensure that Melnikoff's actions wouldn't be a blight on the lab's current work, which has been well received in several recent audits. The lab is working toward a national accreditation.
"This is an excellent crime lab," McGrath said after the meeting. "This lab has an excellent reputation and continues to have that. We're talking about one guy who hasn't worked here since 1989."
||Truth in Justice