American justice scandal: FBI could be at fault in 27 death row cases



An unprecedented federal review of old criminal cases has uncovered as many as 27 death penalty convictions in which FBI forensic experts may have mistakenly linked defendants to crimes with exaggerated scientific testimony.

At issue is a once-widespread practice by which some FBI experts exaggerated the significance of “matches” drawn from microscopic analysis of hair found at crime scenes. Since at least the 1970s, written FBI Laboratory reports typically stated that a hair association could not be used as positive identification. However, on the witness stand, several agents went beyond the science and testified that their hair analysis was a near-certain match.

It is not known how many of the cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions or how many mistakes may now jeopardise valid convictions. Those questions will be explored as the review continues. But it has already led to an 11th-hour stay of execution in Mississippi in May, after the Justice Department acknowledged flaws in forensic testimony by the FBI that helped convict Willie Jerome Manning of the 1992 murders of two university students. The 44-year-old had been hours away from receiving a lethal injection. Federal officials have offered to retest the DNA in the case.

The number of other cases under review places the examination firmly at the heart of the debate about the death penalty. The death row cases are among the first 120 convictions identified as potentially problematic among more than 21,700 FBI Laboratory files being examined. The review was announced last July by the FBI and the Justice Department, in consultation with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

The unusual collaboration came after it emerged last year that authorities had known for years that flawed forensic work by FBI hair examiners may have led to convictions of potentially innocent people, but officials had not aggressively investigated problems or notified defendants.

The new review listed examples of scientifically invalid testimony, including claiming to associate a hair with a single person “to the exclusion of all others”, or to suggest a probability for such a match from past casework.
Whatever the review’s findings, the initiative is pushing state and local labs to take similar measures.

 Last week, the Texas Forensic Science Commission directed all labs under its jurisdiction to take the first step to scrutinise hair cases, in a state that has executed more defendants than any other since 1982. Separately, FBI officials said their intention is to review and disclose problems in capital cases even after a defendant has been executed.


Independent.co.uk


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