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United States v. Olsen
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
737 F.3d 625 (2013)
Kenneth Olsen (defendant) was charged with developing ricin, a poison, for use as a weapon. Olsen admitted to having produced ricin but claimed that he did not intend to use it as a weapon and was instead motivated by morbid curiosity. The government (plaintiff) developed a case that depended on a bottle of allergy pills seized from Olsen. Arnold Melnikoff, a forensic scientist for the Washington State Police (WSP), determined that the pills might contain ricin. However, Melnikoff’s lab was not equipped to test for ricin, so Melnikoff sent the pills to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for testing. At the time, Melnikoff was being investigated by the WSP for suspected misconduct in his handling of evidence in other cases. The investigation, which was completed two months before Olsen’s trial began, concluded that Melnikoff was incompetent and had committed gross misconduct in his work in both Washington and Montana, where he had run the state crime lab before being employed by the WSP. At least three inmates convicted on the basis of Melnikoff’s analysis or testimony were later exonerated by DNA or related evidence. The WSP report also cited numerous errors in Melnikoff’s work, including the presence of contaminants and unexplained materials in samples that were not noted or identified. Olsen’s lawyer knew that an investigation was underway and argued that Melnikoff mishandled the pills and caused them to become contaminated. However, Olsen’s lawyer was unaware of the status or scope of the investigation because the prosecutor, who did not return calls from a lawyer involved with the investigation, assured Olsen’s counsel and the court that the investigation was ongoing but not relevant to Olsen’s case. On that basis, the judge precluded Olsen’s attorney from cross-examining Melnikoff on the subject. The government introduced evidence that the pills were spiked with ricin, and the jury heard Melnikoff’s testimony without being informed of the WSP report. The jury convicted Olsen. The appellate court affirmed the conviction, and Olsen filed a petition for rehearing en banc.
Rule of Law
Holding and Reasoning
Dissent (Kozinski, J.)
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