The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, December 22, 2002
Former crime-lab chief's cases under review DNA evidence freed a man after 15 years. Now 2 states are auditing a forensic expert's cases.
By Becky Bohrer
In court on that day, Jimmy Ray Bromgard couldn't believe what he was
On the witness stand, a forensic expert told jurors that hairs found
in the bedroom of an 8-year-old rape victim matched Bromgard's hair. The
chance they belonged to anyone else, the expert said, was less than 1 in
For the next 15 years, Bromgard sat in prison knowing the expert was
wrong. In October, he was freed after DNA evidence proved his innocence.
"I always figured there was no way they could put me in prison
because I didn't do anything," Bromgard said. "His testimony convicted
me. He should be made to answer."
"He" is Arnold Melnikoff, a former director and 19-year veteran of
Montana's state crime lab.
Bromgard's exoneration prompted a call for an audit of other cases
Melnikoff was involved in - both in Montana and in Washington state,
where he works now. An audit may yield more cases of wrongful
conviction, say attorneys for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal
group that helped win Bromgard's freedom.
Peter Neufeld, a cofounder of the group, says if the claims against
Melnikoff's science are valid, then "any conviction that relies on his
evidence has its integrity undermined."
'The best I could'
Citing potential litigation, Melnikoff declined to talk at length. In
October, however, Melnikoff defended his work, saying: "I did the best I
could with the technology that was available at the time."
Melnikoff, 58, is on paid leave from the Washington State Patrol
Crime Lab in Spokane pending the results of an audit of his work on up
to 100 cases there. An official termed the audit precautionary.
Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath asked the state crime lab on
Thursday to search its records for criminal cases handled by Melnikoff.
McGrath said the audit would target cases in which Melnikoff
presented evidence similar to the hair analysis used to convict
McGrath said Friday that he had no idea how many cases were involved,
or how long the audit would take. He would not say whether the targeted
cases would be reviewed, although that is a likely step.
The Bromgard case recalls others in which the work of a scientific
analyst in a criminal trial has been called into question.
Similar concerns elsewhere
In Oklahoma City, police chemist Joyce Gilchrist was fired last year
after an FBI report claimed she did poor work and provided false or
misleading testimony. She denied wrongdoing.
Fred Zain was facing fraud charges stemming from his career as an
analyst at the West Virginia State Police crime lab when he died this
month. That state's Supreme Court had said earlier that Zain may have
lied or fabricated evidence in dozens of cases.
Bromgard was convicted in 1987 of raping an 8-year-old girl in her
bedroom in Billings. A police officer believed Bromgard fit the
description of the attacker. The victim picked him out of a lineup and
also identified him at trial, although she acknowledged she was not
Melnikoff testified that hairs recovered from the girl's bedroom
matched "characteristics" of Bromgard's hair.
The prosecutor asked how common it was for two people to have
"microscopically indistinguishable" hairs.
Melnikoff, whose resume lists training that included an FBI course on
the microscopy of hairs and another course in forensic microscopy, gave
his conclusion: It was his belief that there was less than a 1 in 10,000
chance that hairs found in the girl's bedroom came from someone other
Walter Rowe, a professor of forensic science at George Washington
University, found that conclusion troubling.
"There's no scientific literature I'm aware of that says you can do
that," said Rowe, who was part of a review of Melnikoff's testimony in
the Bromgard case.
DNA tests were not available at the time, and the combined testimony
of the victim and Melnikoff was enough for a conviction.
Bromgard was released after the Innocence Project helped arrange DNA
tests, which convinced McGrath, the state attorney general, and the
Yellowstone County prosecutor to ask a judge to dismiss his conviction.
McGrath's office is already reviewing at least one case - that of
Paul Kordonowy. He was convicted of rape and aggravated burglary in
1990. Melnikoff provided hair-sample testimony during the trial that was
similar to the testimony he provided at Bromgard's trial, according to
Melnikoff also testified about hair samples during a trial of Chester
Bauer. He was convicted of rape and aggravated assault, but his
convictions were overturned, in part because of DNA testing.
Bauer, who remains in prison for a crime unrelated to his overturned
conviction, has filed a lawsuit against the state and Melnikoff.
Kordonowy is serving time for a second rape that he pleaded guilty
to, but maintains his innocence in the 1990 conviction, his attorney
Jim Hutchison, a former colleague and now chief toxicologist at the
state crime lab in Montana, said Melnikoff had "very high moral
standards and was very meticulous in his work."
Harold Deadman, a forensic scientist who spent 25 years with the FBI
in various roles, said that while Melnikoff's conclusions on the
probability of hairs' matching never should have been given, it did not
automatically mean Melnikoff did anything fraudulent. Melnikoff simply
may not have been good at hair examinations, he said.
Bromgard said he had no plans to sue. But Neufeld said he expected to
ask the state legislature to compensate Bromgard.