Supreme Court declines to hear case involving Army crime lab

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to scrutinize how a discredited military lab analyst helped convict men like former Navy hospital corpsman Ivor Luke.

The court's decision leaves intact Luke's 1999 court martial conviction, secured with the help of U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory analyst Phillip Mills. Mills' own career subsequently collapsed amid revelations that he had falsified a report.

But because Navy investigators had destroyed the evidence used to convict Luke of indecent assault, Mills' work could not be double-checked. That's left Luke to argue for the past five years, ever since Mills' misconduct was discovered, that a general pattern of questionable work should suffice to cast doubt on a specific conviction.

"The integrity of criminal trials in the military is...threatened here," Luke's attorney David Sheldon argued in his legal brief, adding that Mills' overall credibility had been "seriously undermined."

The Supreme Court, as is customary, offered no explanation for its refusal to hear Luke's appeal. The Justice Department, suggesting a high degree of self-confidence, had not formally responded to Luke's petition.

The court accepted only one case Monday and rejected more than 100 others, following a private conference held last Thursday. At least four justices must agree to hear a case for the court to do so.

"It is very difficult to obtain review in the Supreme Court," Sheldon noted Monday. "While we are disappointed in the outcome, we will continue to fight now in federal district court."

Sheldon said he will file a habeas corpus petition, seeking civilian review of Luke's military conviction. The court's decision Monday, moreover, does not subtract from one of Luke's bittersweet successes: he has been able to get on the record considerable evidence concerning Mills and the crime lab.

In a 2006 hearing, for instance, Luke's then-attorneys asked Mills to explain how he happened to leave the lab's employment in 2005, following a discovery that he had falsified a lab report.

"They weren't exactly sure what my status was going to be at the laboratory, so I...was able to write a letter to the laboratory director and resign my position," Mills testified, a hearing transcript shows.

Lab officials, though, said they specifically informed Mills he would be fired, and that he subsequently resigned rather than get canned.

Prompted by a McClatchy series investigating the crime lab, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a senior Republican member have asked the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General to investigate. In part, the lawmakers want to know whether military authorities adequately notified defendants and defense attorneys about Mills' problems.

The lab's own three-year, $1.4 million investigation of itself revealed that analysts disagreed with Mills' DNA conclusions 55 percent of the time. Overall, analysts found problems with paperwork, thoroughness or results in about one-quarter of the cases Mills handled between 1995 and 2005.

Evidence was destroyed by investigators in 88 percent of the cases, leaving many in the same position as Luke: unable to determine whether Mills had erred.

Luke had been serving aboard the U.S.S. Port Royal in August 1998 when a female sailor accused him of sexually assaulting her during a medical exam. The sailor was pregnant, as a result of a relationship with a shipmate.

Mills conducted the lab exam, reporting that he found bodily fluids on a bed sheet and bra.

Convicted and sentenced to two years in prison and a bad-conduct discharge, Luke has repeatedly tried in the years since to reopen his case.

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