In a three-part series for the Huffington Post, University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett tells the story of Donald Gates, the D.C. exoneree whose case led to an FBI crime lab investigation, and explains why federal legislation to improve forensic oversight is so urgently needed.
Donald Gates spent 28 years in prison before DNA testing exonerated him in 2009, despite the fact that prosecutors had known for over a decade that the FBI analyst who testified at Gates’ trial had been discredited and his testimony unfounded. According to research that Garrett conducted for his 2011 book, Convicting the Innocent, Gates is just one of many people whose wrongful conviction was caused at least in part by unvalidated or erroneous forensic science.
Gates was convicted of a rape and murder in 1981 based largely on improper forensic testimony from an FBI analyst who claimed that two stray hairs found on the victim belonged to Gates. He maintained his innocence and first sought DNA testing in 1988 but the results were inconclusive.
Meanwhile, the FBI analyst who had testified with such confidence at Gates’ trial himself came under investigation in the late 1990s, after a whistle-blower repeatedly spoke out about shoddy work at the FBI lab. A 1997 review by the Department of Justice found that the analyst in Gates’ case and 13 other FBI analysts reached false results and used inaccurate methods in a host of cases. The report found that the FBI analyst in Gates’ case had “resorted to fabrication rather than admitting he did not know the answer.”
In his research, Garrett has found similar problems with serology analysis, bite mark analysis, fiber comparisons, and other traditional forensics.
I even saw several more recent cases where analysts botched DNA tests. Analysts even concealed evidence of defendant’s innocence. Had DNA tests not been done years later, these people might have spent the rest of their lives in prison. Still worse, some forensic analysts mistakenly ruled out people who were later shown by DNA to have been the actual culprits.
In the remaining two parts of the series, to be posted on Thursday and Friday, Garrett will discuss other forensic scandals across the country and make the case for federal forensic science reform.
Forensics on the Hill: Part I
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