Today the Innocence Project, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and its partners announced a groundbreaking and historic agreement with the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review more than 2,000 criminal cases in which the FBI conducted microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence.
The unprecedented federal review of past cases has already uncovered as many as 27 death penalty convictions in which FBI forensic experts may have mistakenly linked defendants to crimes with exaggerated scientific testimony, reported the Washington Post.
The unusual collaboration came after The Washington Post reported 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.
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.
Before DNA testing was used in criminal trials, some experts relied on microscopic hair comparison analysis to link a defendant to a crime. In 2009, the forensic discipline was deemed highly unreliable by the National Academy of Science.
Because of the importance attached to these cases, the DOJ has agreed, for the first time in its history, not to raise procedural objections, such as statute of limitations and procedural default claims, in response to the petitions of criminal defendants seeking to have their convictions overturned because of faulty FBI microscopic hair comparison laboratory reports and/or testimony. This agreement will help ensure that defendants will not have any wrongful conviction claims dismissed before being reviewed by a court on the merits. The government also agrees to directly notify the defendants and their lawyers in cases where an error in the analysis or in the forensic testimony is identified and to offer free DNA testing in the cases where such errors have motivated a court order or a request for testing by the prosecution.
Advocates for defendants and the wrongly convicted called the undertaking a watershed moment in police and prosecutorial agencies’ willingness to re-open old cases because of scientific errors uncovered by DNA testing.
Peter J. Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which supports inmates who seek exoneration through DNA testing, applauded the FBI, calling the review historic and a “major step forward to improve the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States.”
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