More than 2,000 convictions for federal crimes now under review

The U.S. Department of Justice has just announced that it will be reviewing the validity of more than 2,000 convictions for federal crimes handed down between 1984 and 2000. Based on evidence provided by the Innocence Project and other criminal defense groups, a number of the convictions may have involved misleading testimony by FBI laboratory examiners. The cases to be reviewed include 27 death penalty convictions.

The review is in response to information in the Innocence Project's database. Founded in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University the Innocence Project has exonerated some 310 people so far using DNA evidence. Of those 310, the organization claims, 72 had been wrongfully convicted using microscopic DNA analysis from hair samples. Unfortunately, at least in those 72 cases, FBI lab examiners had overstated the significance of their findings, misleading the juries into believing the prosecution had iron-clad cases.

"There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed 'flawed' forensic techniques," explained a spokesperson for the FBI. "The purpose of the review is to determine if FBI Laboratory examiner testimony and reports properly reflect the bounds of the underlying science."

For example, in the case of an 18-year-old man convicted of sex offenses in 198i and later exonerated, an FBI lab analyst testified that hairs found at the crime scene "were indistinguishable" from the defendant's, and that such a similarity was very rare. Because the reliability of the lab results were overstated, the jury convicted, and the young man spent 22 years in federal prison before he was exonerated in 2011.

Since such a large number of people have been exonerated of state and federal crimes when their convictions involved misleading scientific testimony, the Justice Department and the FBI are only being ethical in undertaking this review. The Justice Department also has waived appeal deadlines and procedural hurdles for the affected defendants, who will be notified if errors in lab work or analyst testimony are found in their cases.

"The government's willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors in an extraordinarily large number of cases is truly unprecedented," said a spokesperson for the Innocence Project. "It signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles."

Sources:

  • Star-Telegram, "FBI announces review of 2,000 cases featuring hair samples," Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau, July 18, 2013
  • The Washington Post, "U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors," Spencer S. Hsu, July 17, 2013
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