Charleston Gazette

Copyright 2002

 

Friday, December 27, 2002

 

Zain redux? Independent labs needed

Editorial

 

 

DOES this sound familiar? A forensic expert employed by the State Police

testifies in a trial that hair found at the scene of a rape matches that

of the defendant. There is only a 1-in-10,000 chance that the hair

belonged to anyone else.

 

 

  The defendant is convicted, and sits in prison for 15 years, until DNA

evidence proves he was innocent. Now audits are being conducted in two

states to check the work of the forensic expert to see if any other of

the cases he testified in resulted in wrongful convictions.

 

 

 No, West Virginia State Police serologist Fred Zain has not been

resurrected. But a case in Montana is raising similar questions about

Arnold Melnikoff, a former director and 19-year veteran of the state

crime lab. Melnikoff's work in Washington state also is under review. He

is on paid leave from the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.

 

 

  It's too early to tell if this will blow up into the same kind of

scandal that rocked West Virginia's State Police crime lab when Zain's

testimony in dozens of cases was discredited. Six men who had been

wrongfully convicted eventually were released from prison. It cost the

state millions of dollars in settlements.

 

 

  The root of these problems might be the same, though: crime labs under

the control of state police. Crime labs should be independent. Zain was

a former state trooper. He clearly identified with the police. He worked

as a prosecutor, attempting to prove a suspect's guilt, rather than as a

neutral observer interested only in the outcome of the forensic tests.

 

 

  Subsequent scandals in West Virginia's crime lab also brought into

question the reliability of evidence testing and the impartiality of the

lab employees.

 

 

  When forensic evidence and testimony are used to convict a criminal

suspect and send that person to jail, there should be no question that

it is reliable and based on science, not prosecutorial zeal.

 

 

  The only way to ensure this is to establish an independent crime lab

that is not under State Police control or authority.

 

 

  Montana might be facing its own Fred Zain case. West Virginia should

make this change before the state has to face the same thing all over

again.