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

168254009
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.
Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.