Crime Lab Scandal in Washington State

They sit in prison but their crime lab tests are flawed.

A year ago, the State Patrol conducted an internal audit of Arnold Melnikoff's work in 100 felony drug cases and found troubling flaws in 30. There were convictions in 17 cases for crimes ranging from simple possession to making meth. But none of those 22 defendants has been notified that the crime lab evidence used against them had been called into question, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found.

The scathing April 2003 audit report described Melnikoff's drug-analysis work as "sloppy" and "built around speed and shortcuts." It also concluded that 14 of the 30 flawed drug cases needed to be retested because his data was "insufficient" to identify substances. But the lab was able to retest only four of the 14 cases because law enforcement agencies had discarded the evidence, Logan said.

It's not just Melnikoff's testing that is at issue. So is his court testimony:

A review of a dozen cases in which Melnikoff testified revealed "small misstatements" and "a tendency for conclusions to become stronger as the case developed, from notes to written report to testimony," according to the audit report.

It's inexusable to us that the state did not notify defense attorneys of the problems with Melnikoff's work.

"People's liberty could have been affected by this," said Anne Daly, president of the 800-member Washington Defenders Association, which represents the state's public defenders. The State Patrol or the Attorney General's Office has a "moral and ethical obligation" to notify county prosecutors about the audit findings -- and help ensure that there haven't been miscarriages of justice, said Daly and other legal experts. "Are they more interested in doing the right thing or protecting themselves?" she asked.

The investigation was launched at the request of Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, who wrote to the Washington Attorney General:

He said some of Melnikoff's work for the Montana crime lab constituted "scientific fraud." Melnikoff "fabricated testimony" about the likelihood that hairs found at a Montana crime scene were linked to a man accused of child rape, Neufeld said. Post-conviction DNA testing exonerated Jimmy Ray Bromgard in 2002, resulting in his freedom after 15 years in prison. Melnikoff's hair-analysis testimony has also been blamed for helping wrongly convict two other Montana men.

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