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Split high court upholds Bowling's death sentence

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentence of an Eastern Kentucky man for two slayings even though the FBI has concluded that an analyst "overstated the significance" of some evidence at his trial.

A 4-3 split court found that other evidence, besides a now-discredited method for matching bullets, linked Ronnie Lee Bowling, 39, to the slayings of two men in Laurel County in 1989.

Bowling was convicted in part based on testimony from an FBI analyst, Donald Havekost, who said bullets found in Bowling's possession matched those that killed Ronald L. Smith, 28, and Marvin Hensley, 48.

The justices said the FBI analyst's testimony corroborated other evidence, including a witness who survived a third attack, and other ballistics comparisons.

For instance, police said the shots that killed Smith and Hensley were fired from a pistol found beside the road near where officers started chasing Bowling after he allegedly fired shots at a third man.

"Substantial evidence was presented linking Bowling to the recovered handgun, and likewise linking the recovered handgun to all three crime scenes," four justices wrote for the court's majority.

Three justices dissented, saying bullet analysis played such a large role in Bowling's trial that there was no way to know what the outcome would have been without that testimony.

Justice Wil Schroeder noted that prosecutors relied on the analysis in both opening statements and closing arguments. "In light of the prosecutor's emphasis on the CBLA (comparative bullet lead analysis), can we say, beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the conviction?" Schroeder wrote.

Shelly Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Attorney General's Office, said prosecutors were pleased with the ruling.

Barry Scheck, head of The Innocence Project, a legal group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, said the ruling might help others who have similar claims about the use of the analysis. The judges said the discrediting of the analysis amounted to new evidence.

In doing so, the judges put the burden on prosecutors to show that it did not affect the outcome of the trial, rather than having defendants show that it did affect the jury's decision, Scheck said.

"That's a big difference," Scheck said. "That's a huge difference."

Bowling's case is one of 2,500 cases since 1983 involving a now-discredited practice called comparative bullet lead analysis. In 50 to 60 of those cases, including Bowling's, the FBI determined that analysts overstated testimony at trial.

A National Research Council panel found in 1995 that FBI examiners had repeatedly 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.

Havekost said at trial that lead in the bullets used in the two slayings matched cartridges found in Bowling's home. Havekost said that meant they originated from the same manufacturer's batch of bullet lead.

The issue first arose in the case of Shane Ragland of Lexington. Ragland's 2002 murder conviction was overturned 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.

Bowling's attorneys did not immediately return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment on Thursday.

Bowling is also challenging his conviction in federal court.

The men Bowling was convicted of killing were working alone at service stations when they were shot multiple times, including in the back of the head. The prosecutor at Bowling's trial, Tom Handy, said Bowling took money from the stations, but killed the men mainly for pleasure.