News 12.16.09

Forensics and the Gates Case

As we reported

yesterday

, Donald Eugene Gates was freed in Arizona after serving nearly three decades behind bars for a Washington, D.C., crime he didn’t commit. An examination of the forensics behind his wrongful conviction makes a strong case for federal forensic reform to prevent injustices like this in the future.

FBI forensic analyst Michael Malone testified at Gates’ trial in 1982 that hairs found at the scene of the 1981 rape and murder were “microscopically indistinguishable” from Gates’ hairs.  His statements vastly overstated the possible conclusions that could be drawn from a hair comparison. Unlike some other forensic disciplines (DNA testing, blood type testing), hair comparison analysis can only reveal potential similarities between specimens, not the statistical likelihood that two specimens might share common characteristics.

Although Malone’s forensic conclusions have been challenged in other cases, and a 1997 Justice Department review discredited his work, no formal review of his convictions has ever been conducted. The Judge who presided over the Gates case recently ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to conduct such a review.

Gates joins a growing group of exonerees whose wrongful convictions were caused, at least in part, by

unvalidated or improper forensic science

. More than 100 people have been exonerated through DNA testing after unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to their wrongful conviction (flawed analysis of hair was a factor in many of those cases).The National Academy of Sciences has reported a systemic lack of forensic standards and oversight and has proposed the creation of an independent federal agency to oversee the forensic sciences. According to a report released by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, microscopic hair analysis is not a valid science.

In response to the groundbreaking NAS report finding serious problems with forensic science nationwide, the Innocence Project recently drafted a proposal for federal legislation to create the a federal Office of Forensic Science Improvement and Support (OFSIS). The office would be established within the Department of Commerce, which would help define the office’s agenda for research. OFSIS would also engage existing government entities to regulate the mandatory accreditation of crime labs and certification of forensic practitioners; support science-based education and training throughout the criminal justice system; provide periodic needs assessments of the forensic system; and oversee compliance. To learn more and sign a petition in support of the agency

visit the Just Science Coalition website

.

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