Sitting on death row 14 years, judged on three sets of bullets

Staff WriterAugust 14, 2010 

Melvin White's life hinges on forensic science so controversial some judges won't allow it in their courts.

White came to death row in 1996, more than a decade before scientists and the courts began questioning the credibility of studying bullets and guns to solve crimes. A trail of bullets stretching across the country and an SBI analyst's word that they all came from a single gun is all the forensic evidence linking him to the murders of an elderly Craven County woman and her boyfriend.

White maintains his innocence. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His lawyers have been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to win a new trial for him, arguing that the science used to put White in prison is unreliable and potentially inaccurate. He has not been granted a hearing.

In White's case, detectives recovered no guns, and White was never found with one.

SBI firearms analyst Al Langley studied three clusters of bullets. One set came from the North Carolina crime scene. Craven County deputies collected another set from behind White's mobile home, where he and his family shot guns at a makeshift target practice range. Deputies, however, never recorded these casings in the inventory of items seized at his home.

The others came from Arizona, where White had moved after the killings.

There, White had a brush with the law. A street person, talking with police in connection with a shooting in a drug-infested neighborhood in Tucson, described a suspect that police eventually concluded was White.

All from one gun?

Tucson police never charged White with a crime. When they learned that North Carolina authorities wanted White in connection with two murders, however, a team of Tucson detectives scoured the busy street corner looking for casings and bullets. Back at the SBI lab, Langley compared the bullets and determined that one gun, to the exclusion of all others, fired the lethal bullets in Craven County, casings at White's property and several casings collected in Arizona three months later.

He didn't describe what characteristics drew him to that conclusion, nor did he provide photographs of the bullets. He has since retired.

Matching bullets without a gun is tricky, particularly in America, where uniformity in gun manufacturing has eroded as producers look for cheaper ways to make guns. And guns change over time, with wear and tear.

Adina Schwartz, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied the fallibility of firearm and toolmark analysis, was hired by White's attorneys to examine his case. Langley's confidence startled her.

"They are pushing the envelope here," Schwartz said. "He assumed an awful lot and didn't bother to tell us what he assumed. That's not science."

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