Innocence Project and Affiliated Organizations Urge U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Critical Right to Challenge Forensic Evidence in Criminal Cases


Amicus brief in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts cites fallibility of forensic evidence and pattern of wrongful convictions nationwide based on limited, unreliable or fraudulent science

(WASHINGTON, DC, JUNE 24, 2008)—Arguing that the right to challenge forensic evidence is critical for preventing wrongful convictions, the Innocence Network (an association of nonprofit legal clinics and criminal justice resource centers of which the Innocence Project is a founding member) filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that will be heard later this year.

Luis Melendez-Diaz is challenging his 2002 drug-related conviction in Massachusetts, arguing that he was denied the right to cross-examine a state analyst who prepared a report on forensic testing in the case.  He cites a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that evidence presented in trial testimony is not admissible unless the defense can cross-examine the witness.  The State of Massachusetts maintains that the ruling does not apply to a forensic expert’s lab report.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In its brief filed yesterday afternoon, the Innocence Network notes that flawed forensic testimony has led to dozens of wrongful convictions that were later overturned through DNA testing – and says the right to challenge forensic evidence is crucial to uncovering bad science that could wrongfully convict an innocent defendant.  A ruling in favor of Melendez-Diaz could have a significant impact on preventing wrongful convictions by allowing defendants to deter and expose bad forensic evidence presented at trial.

A Massachusetts high court ruling in Melendez-Diaz’s case said that forensic experts’ reports are not based on opinion, but on scientific fact.  In its brief, the Innocence Network argues that this position “rests entirely on a myth of infallibility – a myth that finds no basis in the reality of state forensic practices throughout the country.” In reality, forensic examiners exercise substantial discretion and judgment, often interpreting results of unverified techniques for which there are often no standards, according to the brief.

The brief says that in more than half of the 218 DNA exonerations nationwide to date, “the misapplication of forensic disciplines – such as blood type testing, hair analysis, fingerprint analysis, bite mark analysis and more – has played a role in convicting the innocent.  In these cases, forensic criminalists presented fraudulent, exaggerated, or otherwise tainted evidence to the judge or jury which led to the wrongful conviction.”  In virtually all of those cases, flawed forensic evidence was presented as fact, usually backed up in written reports by forensic experts.  The people who were wrongfully convicted in those cases served years or decades in prison before DNA proved their innocence.

“Undoubtedly, there are many cases in which qualified forensic examiners are careful and conservative in their work, exercise appropriate professional discretion and judgment, and thus provide sound and helpful scientific opinions,” the brief says.  “Unfortunately, however, there are also many documented cases in which state forensic examiners have relied on unscientific methods and procedures, have made mistakes in recording or reporting any results, have evinced bias in favor of the prosecution by overstating the probative value of test results, and have even fabricated test results entirely.”  The brief notes that there are no national standards or oversight to ensure the quality of forensic science used in the nation’s courtrooms.

The brief cites several academic reviews of exoneration cases and highlights several examples of serious problems in crime labs nationwide, including: blind proficiency tests given in 2002 to the NYPD’s crime lab in which analysts identified all of a large number of bags of a white substance as containing cocaine when some contained only an innocuous white powder; the revelation by the 2002 DNA exoneration of Jimmy Ray Bromgard that the Director of the Montana State Crime Lab had fabricated statistics about hair “matches” that led to Bromgard’s wrongful conviction and at least two others; and a 2002 state audit after a series of DNA exonerations in Houston that revealed a dysfunctional organization with serious contamination issues and an untrained staff using shoddy forensic practices.

These examples – and the cases of innocent people who were wrongfully convicted based on flawed science – expose the myth that all forensic science is based on irrefutable fact, rather than fallible opinion or conclusions, according to the brief.  The Innocence Network brief explains that the right to confront witnesses and accusers is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution with the plain intention of making sure that the criminal justice system seeks and finds the truth in all cases – which cannot be fully realized unless forensic evidence can be scrutinized.

The case is Luis E. Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 07-591.

In addition to the Innocence Project – which was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 and is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law – the Innocence Network members include: Alaska Innocence Project; Arizona Justice Project; Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted; Barbara C. Salken Criminal Justice Clinic; California & Hawaii Innocence Project; Center on Wrongful Convictions; Cooley Innocence Project; Downstate Illinois Innocence Project; Georgia Innocence Project; Griffith University Innocence Project; Indiana University School of Law Clinic, Wrongful Conviction Component; Idaho Innocence Project; Innocence Institute at Point Park University; Innocence Network UK; Innocence Project Arkansas; Innocence Project of Florida; Innocence Project New Orleans; Innocence Project Northwest; Innocence Project of Minnesota; Innocence Project of Texas; Innocence Project New Zealand; Iowa/Nebraska Innocence Project; Kentucky Innocence Project; Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project; Maryland Office of the Public Defender Innocence Project; Medill Innocence Project; Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project; Midwestern Innocence Project; Mississippi Innocence Project; Nebraska Innocence Project; New England Innocence Project; North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence; Northern Arizona Justice Project; Northern California Innocence Project; Office of the Public Defender, State of Delaware; Ohio Innocence Project; Pace Post-Conviction Project; Reinvestigation Project; Rocky Mountain Innocence Center; Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University; Second Look Program; Texas Center for Actual Innocence; Texas Innocence Network; University of British Columbia Law Innocence Project; University of Leeds Innocence Project; University of Melbourne Innocence Project; Wesleyan Innocence Project; and Wisconsin Innocence Project.

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