September 2, 2004 in City

Court won’t order crime lab probe

Becky Bohrer Associated Press
 

BILLINGS – Montana’s Supreme Court will not order a more thorough investigation into the work of a former director of the Montana State Crime Lab, saying the court lacks authority or jurisdiction to do so.

A divided court issued the order Wednesday in response to a petition by a group that included several former state Supreme Court justices.

“The sweeping jurisdiction to order such things as the re-examination of substantive evidence in a large number of cases and the setting of standards for crime lab witnesses is well outside our authority,” the court said in its order dismissing the petition and request for hearing.

The Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence in efforts to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes, was among those who last week pushed for the Supreme Court order, and was joined by a group that included former Supreme Court Justices Frank Morrison Jr., Jean Turnage, John C. Sheehy and William Hunt, attorneys and victims’ advocates.

The request for an investigation was prompted by what some see as a failure by Attorney General Mike McGrath to heed repeated calls to fully examine work done by Arnold Melnikoff.

Melnikoff, who left the lab in 1989, came under fire in 2002, when Jimmy Ray Bromgard was released after 15 years in prison when DNA analysis showed he did not rape an 8-year-old girl.

Melnikoff provided hair analysis in that case and others and testified in some cases, including Bromgard’s, that there was less than a 1-in-10,000 chance that hair found at the crime scenes belonged to someone other than the defendants. Melnikoff used a probability theory on hair comparisons that critics said has no scientific basis.

Last year, DNA analysis showed another man, Paul Kordonowy, did not commit a rape for which he was imprisoned; Melnikoff testified on hair comparisons in the case as well.

Melnikoff later went to work for the Washington State Patrol but was fired in March, due largely to testimony he gave in a Montana case.

McGrath said Wednesday he was pleased with the decision, calling the request for an investigation a “grandiose scheme without any merit.” He said any defendant who believed there were mistakes in his case could ask to have it reviewed.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of The Innocence Project and an attorney for the petitioners, said the goal remains an “independent re-examination of Melnikoff’s case work.”

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