Washington, D.C. (TFC) – The Justice Department and FBI have released a statement formally acknowledging that for over two decades, every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit offered false testimony in almost every trial in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants.
In 2012, the Justice Department and the FBI launched a review of thousands of criminal cases in order to determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserved a new trial due to flawed forensic evidence. At the time, it was the most extensive post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It included cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since as far back as 1985. The first results have now been released and what has been discovered has already resulted in the exoneration of four defendants, as the damage assessment starts throughout the country.
As reported by the Washington Post, of the 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.
Information like this will only get worse. For example, 32 defendants were sentenced to death and 14 of those defendants have either already been executed or have died in prison. These cases cover 46 states and the District of Columbia. Defendants, along with Federal and State Prosecutors, are being notified so there can be a determination whether there are grounds to exonerate the defendants, grant new trials or pursue other types of possible relief.
The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques — like hair and bite-mark comparisons — that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.
The results of this review come as no surprise considering the reason it was started. Twice, convictions were rendered in the District of Columbia in which FBI Hair Analysts testified that the defendants were at crimes scenes that they actually were not. Santae A. Tribble, now 54, was convicted of killing a taxi driver in 1978, and Kirk L. Odom, now 52, was convicted of a sexual assault in 1981. Both convictions were vacated, including a statement of innocence for Odom by prosecutors. Until this was discovered by the Washington Post, the Justice Department had not previously reviewed those cases.
Warnings about the problem have been mounting. In 2002, the FBI reported that its own DNA testing found that examiners reported false hair matches more than 11 percent of the time. In the District, the only jurisdiction where defenders and prosecutors have re-investigated all FBI hair convictions, three of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony have been exonerated through DNA testing since 2009, and courts have exonerated two more men. All five served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder.
The gravity of this situation cannot be overstated. While we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, and, while we have a Constitution that enumerates specific protections of our most precious rights of life, liberty, and property, decades of judicial and legislative agendas have eroded the opportunity for a defendant to be saved, even in these type of egregious wrongs committed by overzealous members of law enforcement. For example, only two states, California and Texas, specifically allow appeals when experts recant or scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial. Further, most prisoners are indigent without sufficient resources to hire an attorney to fight their case when discoveries of police wrongdoing are obtained.
As University of Virginia law professor, Brandon L. Garrett told the post,
…the results reveal a “mass disaster” inside the criminal justice system, one that it has been unable to self-correct because courts rely on outdated precedents admitting scientifically invalid testimony at trial and, under the legal doctrine of finality, make it difficult for convicts to challenge old evidence.
Now we wait to see what the remainder of the review reveals. This is a developing story.