For nearly three years, the military held the key to Roger House’s exoneration and didn’t tell him: A forensics examiner had botched a crucial lab test used in the Navy lieutenant’s court-martial.
In fact, the military had begun second-guessing a decade’s worth of tests conducted by its one-time star lab analyst, Phillip Mills.
Investigators discovered that Mills had cut corners and even falsified reports in one case. He found DNA where it didn’t exist, and failed to find it where it did. His mistakes may have let the guilty go free while the innocent, such as House, were convicted…
But the problem was bigger than just a lone analyst.
While a McClatchy investigation revealed that Mills’ mistakes undermined hundreds of criminal cases brought against military personnel, it also found that the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, near Atlanta, was lax in supervising Mills, slow to re-examine his work and slipshod about informing defendants. Officials appeared intent on containing the scandal that threatened to discredit the military’s most important forensics facility, which handles more than 3,000 criminal cases a year.
The military has never publicly acknowledged the extent of Mills’ mistakes nor the lab’s culpability. McClatchy pieced together the untold story by conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing internal investigations, transcripts and other documents.
That sounds about right. When the FBI was informed by the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago that the lead-composition tests it has used for decades was based on flawed science, the agency stopped using the tests, but also declined to inform the thousands of defendants who had been convicted based on the evidence.
My column last week discussed ways to reform the forensics system.