WASHINGTON - 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 courtmartial.
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.
“It cost him his family, and it cost him his Navy career,” House’s attorney, John Wells, said in an interview . “It’s certainly outrageous and unconscionable; it’s the kind of action that makes you want to scream.”
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Mills resigned shortly after being told in November 2005 that he’d be fired, according to court records. In his 30-year career he contributed to innumerable courts-martial. From 1995 to 2005, he handled evidence in 253 Army cases, 117 Navy and Marine Corps cases, and 95 Air Force cases.
It’s unclear how many cases Mills contributed to at Fort Lewis or McChord Air Force Base, before they were consolidated last year. McClatchy did find he conducted the 2002 analysis of evidence taken in a Fort Lewis rape case. 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 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. Mc-Clatchy pieced together the untold story by conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing internal investigations, transcripts and other documents.
The McClatchy investigation shows:
Mills made many mistakes. In an extensive review of his work, lab officials disagreed with his DNA results 55 percent of the time in cases they could retest. Law enforcement officials, following military policy at the time, had destroyed evidence in 83 percent of Mills’ cases before it could be retested. Those 388 cases include rape and other serious crimes.
Military officials tried to avert a public scandal and protect criminal cases from outside legal attack, in part by keeping their inquiry of Mills in-house. The lab was supposed to alert a prosecutor about its final investigation in 2008, but he says he was never notified.
Even today, more than two years after the lab’s review was completed, some defendants remain in the dark. Mills’ supervisor also impeded the lab’s investigation by failing to produce evidence, adding to delays that hurt military defendants, who faced strictly enforced appeal deadlines.
Taken together, the mistakes shocked veteran military officials.
“My confidence in your entire lab is shattered,” Navy Capt. Bruce MacKenzie, a military judge, told lab officials in 2008.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab’s 180 employees, declined to grant a sitdown interview or to provide Mills-related documents.
In an extensive written statement , the Army defended its actions and maintained that Mills’ conduct didn’t reveal systematic problems at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.
“It is important to point out that this was never a ‘USACIL integrity’ question per se, but an issue with an employee’s integrity,” the statement said.
The Army said its $1.4 million retesting of Mills’ evidence demonstrated that the lab took the revelations seriously.
“Although this should never have happened, it did, and we feel very strongly that we took immediate corrective action and have done everything possible to prevent this from happening in the future,” the statement said.
Mills couldn’t be reached to comment, either by phone or mail, over several weeks. But in the past, he’s defended his work.
“I’ve always followed the proper procedure in making sure that I do the same thing over and over in each case,” he said at a 2008 court hearing.
Since the military didn’t preserve evidence, it also missed a chance to retest work that Mills might have gotten wrong.
Though they seemed slow to react, lab officials were deeply alarmed by Mills’ errors.
Officials feared the lab’s accreditation might be revoked. They worried that they might have to withdraw results from a forensics database.
Lab officials could have authorized an independent review. Instead, they decided that the lab would investigate itself.
The lab originally envisioned a six-month review, but it grew into what one lab official called a “three-year research project on a worldwide scope.”
One reason is that some investigators balked at reopening old cases. Military higher-ups were reluctant, too. They struggled with their legal obligation to share evidence that had the potential to clear defendants.
Rather than individually notifying every defendant implicated by Mills’ testimony, they took a narrow approach .
The lab sent a general notice to each military branch’s legal division in August 2005, reasoning that individual notices were required only if all the evidence was to be destroyed by retesting.
The limited notification meant that many never learned of the retesting.
Attorney Charles Gittins, for instance, didn’t hear about evidence discrepancies involving his client Troy Jenkins, an enlisted man who pleaded guilty to charges of rape. Jenkins has claimed he felt pressure to admit his guilt because of the DNA. His co-defendant later went to trial and was convicted on lesser charges.
Military law generally allows only two years to petition for retrial based on new evidence, less time than in civilian courts.
It wasn’t just the defense that was undermined by Mills’ errors. Prosecutors might have missed the chance to detect the guilty. The lab review found 49 cases in which Mills’ testing didn’t identify stains or DNA. Investigators called these “questionable” because of his lack of thoroughness.
In September 2008, the lab completed its review, and it was withering. Mills often “did not follow good scientific practice.” His paperwork documenting his analyses was “lacking.” He used up too much evidence, making it impossible to retest. In nearly one-quarter of the cases, reviewers identified problems.
Not every disagreement meant Mills got it wrong. Some evidence could have degraded over time. Technology has become more refined.
Still, Mills’ errors cast doubt on every DNA profile he submitted to a national database. Lab officials had to withdraw 67 suspect profiles, complicating police work.
Robert Shaler, an outside reviewer from Penn State, was even more critical, government documents show. He attributed Mills’ errors, in part, to “an innate intellectual dishonesty.”
Shaler also blasted lab management. He warned that the lab lacked proper safeguards and permitted analysts to invent laboratory procedures that allowed mistakes to go unnoticed.
In its statement, the Army defended its handling of Mills’ mistakes, disputed some of Shaler’s criticisms and says it “took the situation very seriously.” The lab has made changes, including replacing managers and imposing stricter case reviews.
But defense attorneys whom McClatchy interviewed said that the Army should have ensured that Mills was held fully accountable.
The lab committed to providing its final review to a federal prosecutor, David Leta, so he could determine whether Mills’ conduct violated federal law. Lab officials say they mailed the report in 2008. Leta, however, says he heard of it in February from McClatchy.
He’s now reviewing the case.
Some defendants implicated by Mills, meanwhile, are trying to seek justice on their own. House, the Navy officer who was wrongfully convicted, filed a federal lawsuit seeking back pay and a promotion he was denied.