In recent weeks, developments have emerged in two cases where microscopic hair comparisons by former state Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff were mentioned at trial.
Last month, Gov. Steve Bullock granted clemency to Barry Beach, who served 32 years in prison for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees in Poplar despite eyewitness testimony that she died in a fight among teen girls. State prosecutor Marc Racicot, who later would be elected attorney general and governor, said in his opening and closing statements that a hair found on Nees’ sweater was, “in fact, the defendant’s.” The evidence was lost or destroyed before a judge’s 2005 order authorized a DNA test.
And on Tuesday, a White Sulphur Springs man will face charges in Yellowstone County court after his DNA matched the 1987 rape kit of an 8-year-old girl. Jimmy Ray Bromgard previously served 15 years in prison for that crime, before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
The only physical evidence presented at the trial of Bromgard was testimony from Melnikoff. He improperly multiplied two empirically unsupported probabilities to conclude that there was just a “one in 10,000 chance” that both pubic and head hairs collected at the scene did not belong to Bromgard. After Bromgard spent 15 years in prison, 2002 DNA tests of semen led to his exoneration. The FBI later said the hair examination was flawed and should have excluded Bromgard, a conclusion Melnikoff disputes.
DNA testing in 1997 and 2003 showed that two other Montana men – Chester Bauer and Paul Kordonowy – did not commit rapes for which they were convicted, based in part on microscopic hair comparison testimony by Melnikoff. Both men served time in prison for other crimes to which they had pleaded guilty.