Friday, December 27, 2002
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
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