A new joint report by the Washington Post and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” reveals that the testimony offered by FBI experts in thousands of convictions nationwide has been unreliable and misleading. The report shows that the FBI was providing this testimony even after the scientific community made it clear that bullet lead analysis is not reliable. The findings are leading the FBI to review thousands of convictions — and come as another blow to unreliable science in American courtrooms after the questions raised in recent years regarding questionable forensic disciplines such as bite mark comparison and microscopic hair and fiber analysis.
The Innocence Network and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers announced on November 19 the creation of a joint task force to ensure that convictions resulting from discredited FBI bullet analysis are properly reviewed. The Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted.
Read more about the new Joint Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis Task Force
The Innocence Project has long advocated that American courts rely only on trusted and peer-reviewed forensics. At the same time, the Innocence Project is working within the scientific community to ensure that crime labs have the resources they need to do quality work, and to create clearer standards for what kind of forensic evidence can be allowed into court
Unreliable science can send innocent people to prison
More than 75 of the 208 wrongful convictions overturned to date by DNA testing were caused, at least in part, by
unreliable or limited science in the courtroom
. Some wrongful convictions are based on science that has a limited ability to identify individuals, such as serology or microscopic hair analysis that can tell whether a person might be the perpetrator (or is included a segment of the population that could be the perpetrator). Others are based on techniques that are not validated by the scientific community, such as bite marks and dog sniffing. Some wrongful convictions overturned by DNA were caused by mistakes or intentional fraud by lab analysts and other forensic employees.
Earlier this year, Innocence Project client
was exonerated by DNA testing after he had served 15 years in New York prison. Brown’s conviction in 1992 was based partly on the testimony of a “bite mark expert” who testified on the stand that a bite mark on the body of a murder victim matched Brown’s teeth. An expert testifying for the defense said that six of the seven bite marks were insufficient for comparison and that the person who left the seventh had two more teeth than Brown. Regardless, the jury sentenced Brown to 25 years to life in prison.
Egregious examples abound in which courts, judges, juries and prosecutors have placed too much faith in questionable science and sent the wrong person to prison. When
Jimmy Ray Bromgard
was convicted of a rape he didn’t commit in Montana, the lab technician testified that the male hair found at the crime scene could only have come from 1 in 10,000 people, and it could have come from Bromgard. That was more than just an exaggeration; it was a lie. There has never been a method in the hair comparison field to produce statistics on the odds of a match.
You can help the Innocence Project work with courts, legislators, scientists and others to ensure that our justice system relies on good science.
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Most of the Americans convicted by questionable forensic evidence don’t have the option of DNA testing because there was no biological evidence involved in the crime. Most of them are still behind bars. It is only through systemic reforms that we can prevent wrongful convictions by ensuring that our court system is based on solid science.
to learn how you can help reform your state’s criminal justice system to help inmates challenge convictions based on faulty forensics, and to prevent future injustice by supporting sound forensic science.