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How Accurate Are Forensics These Days?

A recent Washington Post article highlighted Justice Department and FBI findings that acknowledged almost every single examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit had testified to flawed and misleading science in almost every trial where evidence was presented against the defendants for more than 20 years before the year 2000. In short, FBI forensic units admitted that for more than two decades, they were providing false testimony that favored the prosecutors. This data comes from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project.

Are the Defendants Innocent?

Among the 268 trials reviewed at the time of publication, 32 defendants were sentenced to death. We do not know whether this was the only evidence in each trial that led to the convictions, so no one can say that innocent people were sentenced incorrectly. Though, defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District of Columbia are being asked to review the tainted cases for potential appeals.

Why is the FBI Coming Clean?

This forensics scandal is on a national level. It showcases the failure of the nation’s highest courts to keeping false scientific information from the juries. So, what are state authorities to do now? It is clear that forensics such as hair and handwriting comparisons, firearm bullet marks, bite mark patterns, and shoe and tire prints are determined with some unscientific method and are always subject to human bias. Even fingerprint identification is partially subjective, a National Academy of Sciences panel chartered by Congress found. “The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure,” the panel concluded in 2009. So, subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques, such as hair bite mark comparisons, has contributed to wrongful convictions in more than 25% of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.

Can We Even Count on Forensics Anymore?

Now that this has come to light, the FBI and Justice Department are vowing to devote resources to review cases with convictions that were wrongfully obtained. I’ve rarely seen fingerprints used as evidence in court. Not for motions, not for trial and never have I seen them reviewed by actual experts (experts outside of law enforcement officers). I’m not even sure that anyone even bothers with them anymore, as they are so subjective.

The co-founder of the Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld has said, “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,” As a criminal defense lawyer, it is alarming to know that we could have been presented false evidence from the jump. Some suggestions to reform include giving defendants their own forensic experts, untethering crime labs from the prosecutors and cops to which they now answer, verification and standards for expert analysis. None of these changes would be very costly. Unfortunately, no one is eager yet to jump at this reform from the federal and state authorities.

Call an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have recently been arrested in New Orleans for a crime you did not commit, please call a trustworthy criminal defense attorney immediately. Crescent City Law is available for a free initial consultation by calling (504) 264-9492 or e-mail. We are available nights, weekends and off-site and have translators available in Spanish, French, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese.

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