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Poison conviction contested

Thu., Nov. 19, 2009

Expert witness in ricin trial was later fired

A Spokane Valley man serving 10 years in federal prison for making a deadly chemical poison is asking to have his conviction overturned because one of the government’s expert witnesses was later fired for misconduct in other criminal cases.

Kenneth Olsen, a former computer programmer and part-time massage therapist, is scheduled for a Jan. 29 hearing on his request to set aside his 2003 jury conviction for making ricin. The conviction has been upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, although his original sentence was remanded and reduced.

After ricin was found at Olsen’s work station at Agilent Technologies in Liberty Lake, federal prosecutors accused him of researching toxins and making ricin from castor beans as part of a plan to poison his wife. But his defense attorneys argued Olsen was merely curious about chemistry and was making castor oil for massage. His wife said she didn’t believe he would try to harm her.

Among the prosecution witnesses was Arnold Melnikoff, then head of the Washington State Patrol crime lab, where some of the evidence in the case was sent for testing. Months before Olsen’s trial, a Montana rape case in which Melnikoff had served as the key witness on scientific evidence was overturned because his testimony was not based on sound science. The man who had been convicted was freed after 15 years in prison.

Olsen’s trial attorneys were not told the full extent of investigations involving Melnikoff’s possible misconduct, the appeal contends. Melnikoff was fired from the WSP in March 2004.

The appeal also says one juror was more familiar with the case than he revealed during the pretrial interviews and had already formed an opinion that Olsen was guilty.

Federal prosecutors have until Dec. 11 to respond.

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