Thursday, April 23, 2015

FBI overstated hair match crisis (9); (The Emperor's clothes); Dahlia Lithwick takes on "Pseudoscience in the witness box" and shows how "the FBI faked an entire field of forensic science." Slate. Lithwick reacts to the Washington Post report that "flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes." (Must, Must Read. HL);

HEADING: "Pseudoscience in the witness box: The FBI faked an entire field of forensic science," by Dahlia Lithwick, published by Slate on April 22, 2015.

SUB-HEADING:  "The Washington Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes."

GIST: The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000. What went wrong? The Post continues: “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.” The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project. Following revelations published in recent years, the two groups are helping the government with the country’s largest ever post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence. Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison. The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”........Horror stories abound. George Perrot (profiled by Ed Pilkington of the Guardian) may have spent 30 years in prison based on erroneous forensic hair testimony. Mississippi bite-mark expert Michael West, about whom Balko has written extensively, was shown in a recent film jamming the suspect’s dental mold into the body of a young victim. Santae Tribble served 28 years for a murder based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog. And the reign of pseudoscience in the witness box hardly stops at hair and bite marks. It sweeps in the testimony of forensic psychiatrists like James Grigson, nicknamed Dr. Death for his willingness to testify against capital defendants, and flawed arson analysis that may have contributed to the execution of Texas’ Cameron Todd Willingham. Jurors grass-fed on CSI-Someplace and Law and Order believe uncritically in experts who throw around words like “cuticle” and “cortex,” and why shouldn’t they? These folks are supposed to be analysts who answer to the rules of science, not performance artists trotted out for the benefit of the prosecution. Since prison-crowding and justice reform are widely touted as issues that unite the left and the right in this country, going back and retesting the evidence of those who may well have been wrongly imprisoned should be a national priority. So far it isn’t, perhaps because the scope of the enterprise is so daunting. Or perhaps because nobody really cares all that much about people who’ve been sitting in jail for years and years. Says Garrett: “These victims may remain unrecognized and in prison—if they still live—and the same unscientific testimony continues to be delivered without limitation. … But hey, these are just criminal cases right?” 
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