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FBI: Bullet evidence 'overstated' in Bowling case

LOUISVILLE — The FBI has concluded that an analyst "overstated the significance" of evidence matching bullets used in two killings to those found in the possession of a man now on Death Row for the murders.

The FBI made the disclosure in a letter filed in the case of Kentucky Death Row inmate Ronnie Lee Bowling, 39.

Bowling was convicted of the murders of two men in Laurel County in 1989, the verdict based in part on testimony that bullets found in Bowling's home matched those used in the slayings.

Bowling's attorneys filed the letter with the Kentucky Supreme Court and in a federal appeal in federal district court in London last week. The attorneys are asking the Kentucky Supreme Court to overturn Bowling's convictions in the deaths of Ronald L. Smith, 28, and Marvin Hensley, 48.

Sept. 18 is the Kentucky Supreme Court's next scheduled date to issue rulings.

The letter sent to Bowling's attorneys is the second concerning comparative bullet lead analysis. The first notified attorneys that the FBI had stopped using the analysis. David H. Harshaw, another of Bowling's attorneys, said the FBI reviewed the analyst's testimony and reached the conclusion about the analyst on its own.

Harshaw would not say what effect the letter may have on Bowling's appeal.

One of Bowling's lawyers, public defender Donna Boyce, said the bullet lead analysis makes up most of the case against her client.

"It really is junk science," Boyce said.

The case is one of 2,500 cases since 1983 involving a now-discredited practice called comparative bullet lead analysis.

A National Research Council panel found in 1995 that FBI examiners repeatedly had failed to tell juries bullet matches made on lead comparisons might be mere coincidence. The panel also said FBI analysts failed to fully disclose the possibility of a false match.

Since the early 1980s, the bureau has performed bullet lead examinations in 2,500 cases submitted by federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies. The FBI said the results were introduced at trials in fewer than 20 percent of those cases.

The issue first arose in the case of Shane Ragland of Lexington.

Ragland was convicted of murder in 2002 for the death of Trent DiGiuro, but the verdict was overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2006 because bullet lead analysis played a significant role in his case. Ragland pleaded guilty last year to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to time served and three days of home incarceration.

The analyst in Bowling's case, Donald Havekost, said at trial that lead in the bullets used in the two slayings matched cartridges found in Bowling's home.

Havekost testified that one of the bullets from another case involving Bowling had the same chemical makeup as five of the bullets found in a partially filled box of ammunition at Bowling's home. Havekost said that meant they originated from the same manufacturer's batch of bullet lead.