The FBI Does Some Soul Searching on Potentially Exaggerated Expert Testimony

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 18 2013 4:23 PM

The FBI Does Some Much-Needed Soul Searching About Just How "Expert" Its Expert Testimony Is

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The FBI is instigating a massive review of its forensic science practices.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post brings us a look at the preliminary findings of a sweeping federal review into thousands of old criminal cases in which FBI forensic experts may have overstated their scientific testimony to help secure a conviction. The early takeaway is difficult to ignore: Exaggerated testimony may have played a role in landing at least 27 people on death row.

It's too early to say how many of those cases resulted in wrongful convictions, but the news has already led to an 11th-hour stay of execution for a Mississippi man who was facing death by lethal injection. WaPo explains what it is exactly that the FBI experts may have done wrong while on the stand:

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.
Since at least the 1970s, written FBI Laboratory reports typically stated that a hair association could not be used as positive identification. However, on the witness stand, several agents for years went beyond the science and testified that their hair analysis was a near-certain match.
The new review listed examples of scientifically invalid testimony, including claiming to associate a hair with a single person “to the exclusion of all others,” or to state or suggest a probability for such a match from past casework.
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The Justice Department and FBI, along with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, are expected to go public with more detailed findings sometime later this summer. For cases where the groups decide that the FBI examiners "exceeded the limit of science," the DoJ will notify both the prosecution and the defense. They'll also assist the convicted defendants in variety of ways, most notably by waiving statues of limitations and other rules that often restrict appeals.

While the scope of the probe is massive—it involves the examination of at least 21,700 FBI Laboratory files—the Post suggests it may only be the "tip of the iceberg." That's because between 1979 and 2009, around 500 state and local forensic lab specialists attended hair analysis classes at the FBI. Considering that the vast majority of capital cases are considered on the state and local levels, this review may have to get a lot more extensive if federal malpractice is confirmed. Head on over to the Post to read all the nitty gritty.

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