The Spokesman Review

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

 

MAIN NEWS

 

Scientist's testimony in question [Corrected 12/20/02]; Forensic expert's work reviewed after DNA sets Montanan free

Kevin Blocker
Staff writer

 

 

 ACCURACY WATCH (Thursday, December 19, 2002):

 

 Job responsibilities misidentified

 

 Arnold Melnikoff's job as a forensic scientist in Spokane is to test drug evidence obtained by State Patrol investigators. In a Tuesday story about Melnikoff being placed on leave while his work is reviewed, the wrong person was identified as having Melnikoff's responsibilities.

 

   A forensic scientist with the Washington State Patrol crime lab in Spokane has been placed on paid leave pending a review of his work over the past three years.

 

 

  The work of Arnold Melnikoff recently came into question after DNA tests exonerated a Montana man who had been convicted of child rape more than 15 years ago.

 

 

   It was Melnikoff's trial testimony about hair fibers found in the victim's bedroom that persuaded jurors to convict Jimmy Ray Bromgard.

 

 

  Melnikoff served as director of the Montana state crime laboratory from 1970 to 1989. He moved to the Washington State Patrol, working briefly in the Kelso office before coming to

Spokane.

 

 

  His role in convicting Bromgard of rape "has cast a shadow over the credibility of some of Melnikoff's work in Washington," said a spokesman for the Innocence Project. That national organization helped arrange the DNA tests that cleared Bromgard.

 

 

  Melnikoff could not be reached for comment Monday.

 

 

  Dr. Barry Logan, director of the WSP crime lab in Seattle, said Monday officials, so far, have not uncovered evidence of "scientific misconduct" by Melnikoff.

 

 

  Logan said crime lab officials are reviewing random cases over the past three years in which Melnikoff offered testimony. They are looking to see if Melnikoff's testimony is consistent with evidence and reports submitted by WSP investigators, Logan said.

 

 

  When the Montana case came to light, Logan said he immediately ordered an audit of Melnikoff's work and placed him on leave. Logan said Melnikoff offered "significant and troubling" testimony in the trial of Bromgard.

 

 

  However, Logan did say that Melnikoff has different duties with the Washington State Patrol than those he had in Montana.

 

 

  In Spokane, Logan's job as a forensic scientist has been to test drug evidence obtained by WSP investigators, Logan said.

 

 

  Those duties include a "visual, chemical and instrumental analysis of evidence," according to Logan.

 

 

  Logan said it's difficult to know the exact number of drug cases Melnikoff has testified in since 1989.

 

 

  "I would have to estimate that it's probably several hundred during his tenure," Logan said.

 

 

  "A forensic scientist may review 300 to 400 cases a year, but only a small percentage - 50 at the most - actually go on to trial."

 

 

  Logan said he hopes to have the audit completed by the end of the month.

 

 

  Melnikoff's testimony came under scrutiny when the Innocence Project helped arrange DNA tests in the case of Bromgard. The results persuaded Montana prosecutors to dismiss the rape conviction.

 

 

  Jacqueline McMurtrie, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and the director of Innocence Project in the Pacific Northwest, sent letters and e-mail to Spokane attorneys two weeks ago asking them to provide whatever information they could about Melnikoff to the Innocence Project.

 

 

  "We believe the exoneration (of Bromgard) has a cast a shadow over the credibility of some of Melnikoff's work in Washington," McMurtrie said.

 

 

  McMurtrie said response from Spokane-area attorneys has been limited, and so far, she has yet to see any accusations of scientific misconduct by Melnikoff from the legal community.

 

 

  McMurtrie did say she was pleased by the level of "cooperation and openness" displayed by WSP officials during the investigation.