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Washington Police Scientists' Work Under Scrutiny

Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) is undertaking a review of cases in which Washington State Patrol scientists Arnold Melnikoff and Michael Hoover conducted forensic testing or offered expert testimony.

It was recently revealed that Melnikoff engaged in scientific fraud during his tenure as the director and hair examiner for the Montana State Crime Laboratory during the 1980's. Melnikoff's false testimony about hair comparisons led to at least two wrongful convictions of factually innocent men in Montana. The most recent exoneration involved Jimmy Ray Bromgard. Mr. Bromgard was released from prison on September 30, 2002, when DNA testing established his innocence. He had served 15 years of his 40-year sentence.

Melnikoff served as the director of the Montana State crime laboratory from 1970 to 1989. He then moved to the Washington State Patrol, working briefly in the Kelso office before moving to the Spokane office. At least initially, it appears that his work in Washington was restricted to drug analysis and site inspections at alleged clandestine drug labs. Melnikoff's work is undergoing an audit by the Washington State Patrol, in conjunction with IPNW and the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School.

Michael Hoover, a chemist with the Washington State Patrol, was sentenced in November of 2001 after he admitted to taking heroin from evidence room samples. Hoover worked for 11 years at the patrol's crime lab in Marysville and was one of several scientists in the lab responsible for testing evidence samples from Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island, Clallam and Jefferson counties for the presence of illegal drugs. After his arrest, Snohomish County prosecutors dropped 126 cases.

However, many individuals remain either incarcerated or convicted for crimes in which Hoover conducted testing. Recently the Court of Appeals, Div. I, overturned the convictions of James Roche and Roy Sweeney for methamphetamine possession, holding that the newly discovered evidence of Hoover's malfeasance broke the chain of custody and tainted the integrity of their trials. See: State v. Roche, 59 P.3d 682 (2002).

If your case, or others that you know about, was one in which Melnikoff or Sweeny conducted forensic testing or offered expert testimony please write to: IPNW, University of Washington School of Law, 1100 N.E. Campus Parkway, Seattle, WA 98105. The more detail you can provide about the case and the significance of Melnikoff or Hoover's involvement - the better (i.e. cause number, nature of the testimony, any concerns that you had about the testimony). But, even a minimal amount of information will be helpful in tracking down the cases.

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Related legal case

State v. Roche

Although the State in Roche's case conceded that the evidence was material, the State in Sweeney's case argues *446 that the new evidence is neither material nor admissible. First, the State argues that Hoover's improprieties with heroin do not lead to a logical inference that he improperly handled the methamphetamine in Sweeney's case. The State also dismisses the dry labbing allegations as inadmissible and irrelevant, notwithstanding the fact that Sweeney's was one of the 14 cases in which dry labbing was specifically suspected. For the reasons we have already discussed, we disagree. Even though there is no evidence that Hoover consumed methamphetamine, there is evidence that he kept more of it at his desk than was needed for legitimate laboratory purposes. And since he admittedly consumed heroin on the job almost every day, all of his drug testing work during the relevant time period must be called into serious question.

Sweeney has shown that admissible material facts exist which have not been previously presented and heard, which, in the interest of justice, require vacation of the conviction. RAP 16.4(c)(3). Therefore, we grant Sweeney's personal restraint petition, and vacate his conviction. We do so for the same reasons that we have reversed Roche's conviction, as well as the reasons specific to Sweeney's petition, and remand for a new trial if the State should elect to retry him.

This ruling makes it unnecessary for us to address Sweeney's contention that his restraint is unlawful on grounds that the State committed a Brady [FN7] violation by failing to sooner disclose the evidence of Hoover's malfeasance. Neither do we need to address Sweeney's argument that the State violated his right to equal protection on grounds that he was not given the benefit of the "Hoover" policy because he had been convicted and sentenced before evidence of Hoover's malfeasance came to light, and because prosecutors in other counties decided to dismiss all controlled substances cases where they decided they would not prevail on motions to withdraw guilty pleas or for a new trial, even where sentencing had already taken place.

FN7. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963).

We adopt as our own the reasoning of the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office as stated in the Downes memorandum, and restate it for purposes of this opinion as follows: The most important consideration for us now is the preservation of the integrity of the criminal justice system. We must handle these two cases now before us in such a fashion that the public, the defense bar, the prosecuting attorneys, and the courts of Washington will clearly understand that we will not tolerate criminal convictions based on tainted evidence, but will insist upon proper standards of conduct and procedure.

We vacate Roche's conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, and remand for a new trial if the State should elect to retry him. We grant Sweeney's personal restraint petition insofar as it relates to his possession of methamphetamine conviction, vacate that conviction, and remand for a new trial if the State should **696 elect to retry him. We deny Sweeney's personal restraint petition insofar as it relates to his conviction for eluding.


114 Wash.App. 424, 59 P.3d 682