The revelation that FBI experts gave flawed forensic testimony in a vast number of criminal cases over decades has finally been acknowledged by the Justice Department and the FBI, which means the criminal justice system will now have to decide what to do about thousands of cases that potentially were affected.
The scandal was revealed last summer in a Washington Post story, which reported that the massive review of criminal cases by the FBI and Justice Department revealed a mind-boggling number of flaws in forensic testimony from the FBI lab. This raises the possibility that hundreds and maybe thousands of innocent people could be behind bars because of the mistakes.
At a time when the U.S. has been imprisoning an unprecedented number of African-American men, the ramifications of the revelations for many in the African-American community could be mind-boggling.
The inquiry began three years ago after a Washington Post story concluded that flawed forensic evidence involving microscopic hair matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. According to the Post, the majority of the defendants were never told of the problems in their cases.
The government’s formal acknowledgement was praised by attorneys for the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which helped the government with the review.
Of 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 Washington Post. The cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death, of which 14 have been executed or died in prison.
In a statement, the FBI and Justice Department said they would devote resources to address all cases and they “are committed to ensuring that affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance. The Department and the FBI are also committed to ensuring the accuracy of future hair analysis testimony, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science.”
Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, praised the government for the collaboration but said, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
“We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and the courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn’t stopped much sooner,” Neufeld said.
Norman L. Reimer, the NACDL’s executive director, said, “Hopefully, this project establishes a precedent so that in future situations it will not take years to remediate the injustice.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former prosecutor, said the FBI and Justice Department must notify defendants in all 2,500 targeted cases involving an FBI hair match about the problem—even if their case has not been completed.
“These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law,” Blumenthal said.
University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett told the Post that the results reveal a “mass disaster” inside the criminal justice system.
“The tools don’t exist to handle systematic errors in our criminal justice system,” Garrett said. “The FBI deserves every recognition for doing something really remarkable here. The problem is there may be few judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers who are able or willing to do anything about it.”
While federal authorities are offering new DNA testing in cases with errors if sought by a judge or prosecutor, biological evidence in the cases often is lost or unavailable, according to the Post.
As an example of someone who could have been affected by the halt in the review, the Post last year offered the case of Florida death-row inmate James Aren Duckett, who challenged his 1988 conviction based on an FBI hair match. His appeal was denied by the Florida Supreme Court.
The FBI had initially said the problems were the fault of a single rogue examiner, but the Post contended that the latest revelations put that claim into doubt.
“I see this as a tip-of-the-iceberg problem,” Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor and expert on modern scientific evidence, told the Post. “It’s not as though this is one bad apple or even that this is one bad-apple discipline. There is a long list of disciplines that have exhibited problems, where if you opened up cases you’d see the same kinds of overstated claims and unfounded statements.”