Report: 'Nearly Every' FBI Forensics Expert Gave Flawed Testimony In 'Almost All Trials' Over A 20-Year Period

from the when-convictions-are-prized-over-accuracy dept

The FBI seems to be more interested in securing convictions than finding the truth. An investigation into questions about the agency’s hair analysis commenced in 1996, but years of foot dragging by the FBI means the full truth has only come to light over the past couple of years. What’s detailed in a report compiled by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Innocence Project is an almost surreally callous drive for sucessful prosecutions that potentially put dozens of innocent people behind bars.

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far…

This isn’t to say that nearly every case reviewed will be overturned. For some, it’s too late. Of those reviewed, 28 pertain to prisoners with death sentences — of which nearly all have already died… or been put to death. For others, their convictions may not have hinged on apparently questionable DNA evidence.

What’s uncovered here is just the beginning. There are nearly 1,200 more cases to review. For many of those, it will likely be several years (and several lawsuits) before the truth comes out. Of those 1,200, nearly 700 are being met with stonewalling by local law enforcement and prosecutors, who have refused to provide requested transcripts and other court materials.

Part of this widespread failure is undoubtedly due to the FBI’s desire to rack up convictions. (The same is true for those entities it worked with — local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.) But a larger portion of this can be chalked up to the FBI’s own desire to keep its “slam dunk” forensics analysis from being questioned by anyone inside or outside of its labs. For four decades (1972-2012), the FBI refused to provide any guidelines for the use of, not just hair DNA evidence, but almost any forensic evidence, in court.

The FBI is waiting to complete all reviews to assess causes but has acknowledged that hair examiners until 2012 lacked written standards defining scientifically appropriate and erroneous ways to explain results in court. The bureau expects this year to complete similar standards for testimony and lab reports for 19 forensic disciplines.

Judging from how analysts performed in court, the lack of guidance was apparently construed to mean “put people in jail,” rather than unbiased scientific analysis. This news follows on the heels of a highly critical report condemning the agency’s faith in “bite mark analysis,” a practice that is increasingly being perceived as junk science — foisted on law enforcement by self-described “experts” with no hard data to back up their findings. The courts, so far, have often indulged bite mark experts, despite a National Academy of Sciences report finding that bite mark analysis provides “no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others.”

These are people who have the power to effectively end someone’s life and they’ve been instrumental in ensuring that problems tracing back to the early 1970s — and first examined 25 years later — remained buried until it could no longer be ignored.

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Comments on “Report: 'Nearly Every' FBI Forensics Expert Gave Flawed Testimony In 'Almost All Trials' Over A 20-Year Period”

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Groaker (profile) says:

Forensic nonesense

The FBI has been in chronic scandal for its forensic malfeasance for decades. Whether for claiming a test could distinguish between different fertilizers, when it couldn’t tell the difference between nitrogen in fertilizer, and nitrogen in urine. To completely made up tests in bullet analysis, and endless more schemes to convict people with only the cachet of the FBI supporting the tests.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Gameification of the system always results in cheating.
The problem is they are playing this game with peoples lives.

They get points for convictions, not for actually finding justice. We’ve seen prosecutors who hide evidence, lie in court, investigators who have “unique” ways to look at evidence… and not a damn thing ever happens to them. Somehow we let them undermine the entire system and not face any of the blowback when they get caught.

Perhaps it is time that we seriously look at reform, by removing rewarding convictions over the fair pursuit of the truth. We have cases not brought because it might be to hard to win, and cases where people unable to fight back are being railroaded & legally murdered because someone needed a feather in their cap more than to find the truth.

We give them more if they convict more, and we are shocked that they are cutting corners… perhaps we need to stop being blind to the problem we created.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is why people do not trust the system and take plea bargins for reduced sentences.

Also why anyone that has been through the system faces a high recidivism rate because the system is designed to keep criminals criminal.

Next up are the police shootings and people blowing cops away to avoid getting mixed up in a corrupt system

But what law enforcement will never tell you is that they like it this way.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

We have watched juries excuse cops because of magical thinking that cops are trustworthy & always honest.

People who have problems with cops are tossed off of juries, leaving people who have never had a firsthand experience with them that might have shown that the badge is not always clean and shiny.

People still have blind faith in the system, and I am sure we can find people who will defend them against this report. They told us he was bad, so it must be true.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Juries can only decide based on the evidence and testimony they have. If these are flawed the jurors are liable to convict an innocent person because, essentially, they were lied to and had no point of reference to prove the lie. If OJ Simpson did not have money he would have convicted because “minor” issues like improper sample chain of custody would never have come out. In science, the analysis is only as good as the sample it is provenance.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, I have more than a small whiff that this may be the case as well. It’s a classic management error: placing exaggerated importance on certain measurements simply because they are the only measurements you can make.

A bit like software companies optimizing UIs to minimize mouse clicks at the expense of actual usability, because mouse clicks are what they can measure.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Apr 20th, 2015 @ 8:27am

So… still no rioting on the streets? Noone is even just a little bit upset?

Please tell us the utopia from which you hail

What’s that got to do with anything? It’s a valid question. Their country doesn’t brag about Exceptionalism and having the duty to export freedom to the rest of the lesser civilized world, threatening WWIII in the process.

Is the USA your country, or your rulers’ and tyrants’ country?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The valid reason why no-one is rioting in the streets.

Our obedience to authority is as instinctive to the human brain as confirmation bias, or the notion that we should throw rocks at people with different-colored skin.

That is to say human beings have to actually work to think critically of people in power. If left to their own devices, it’s easier and more assuring to presume that they got into office because they are somehow more qualified than the rest of us. Even when it’s Joffrey or Caligula or Palpatine.

And that is why people are adamant that all these people getting murdered by cops in the streets all somehow deserved to die. Because it’s easier and natural to think it’s a just world and the law officer executes his job perfectly.

Ergo the lack of riots.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

… oh, and he wasn’t exactly victorious either, was he?

Wasn’t he? Besides, they made a tactical mistake. They should have just kept on going into Gaul, perhaps coming back with an army exclusively of warriors, instead of turning on Rome dragging women and children and other non-warriors with them.

They shook Imperial Rome to it knees and made it fear for its very existence. That’s pretty damned good in my books. It’s provided an example for the ages which is still admired to this day a couple of millennia on.

Note, Rome did eventually fall, so what would the point be in continuing to prop up a cancerous system? Just to live for another day as slaves?

Sic semper tyranis.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

All violence will do is put some other tool in power while others die. I’d like to think there are better options.

It needn’t be violent. In fact, you’ve already tried it once before. Seceed from the Union. Break the USA up into multiple separate countries. Agree to disagree and go your separate ways peacefully. Face it, the north hates the south and vice versa. What does Seattle have in common with Tampa? Damned near nothing. Texas would be better off on its own. Washington DC can revert back to swampland.

If it keeps on the way it’s going, the USA is bound to start WWIII with somebody. That’s what I worry about. Do the world a favor and dissolve into your component parts.

It may already be a fait accomplis. The dollar’s going to implode soon. Russia’s given up trying to align with Europe because of your NeoCon-Israeli masters’ sabre rattling. They’re now creating the Leninberg-Shanghai trade axis with China instead.

Bite the bullet. Save the world. It needn’t mean civil war.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

The media wants you to think the US is all red or blue, when it’s really purple. Every community has a mix of opinions. There might a bigger difference between Seattle and Vancouver than there is between Seattle and Tampa.

Diversity is the United States’ greatest strength, and controversy is what drives us. You are free to voice whatever opinions you want, and your neighbor is free to contradict you. That’s how it works for most people here. Yes, there’s hate and bigotry and disagreement, but there’s also acceptance and community and caring. It’s a nation of immigrants, and most people are open to anyone from anywhere, and respectful of other cultures and traditions, even though I know our history doesn’t read that way. Maybe some European countries are better than us, but Europe’s history is just as bad as ours.

The danger of the U.S. isn’t its people or its diversity – it’s simply it’s considerable power. That alone makes it a threat to the rest of the world.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 A tale of two colors.

Partisanship within the US is hardly about people agreeing with (or even considering) the platforms, but is about having sides to choose. We are as loyal as sports teams are to their alleged hometowns.

Most of us who are moderate are so not because we are apathetic about issues (when we think about them), but because we have strong opinions that don’t necessarily mesh with the painted lines.

But the interesting thing to me is that the place where the people disagree with the state (trade, copyright, control of the internet, et. al.) seem to fall into the same patters from nation to nation.

I think WWIII is going to be a civil war, a war of peoples against the states that want to retain power against the common will.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 First-past-the-post elections.

CGP Grey does an excellent job of explaining the problem that arrises with first-past-the-post elections, namely that people are driven to vote defensively against the worst evil rather than voting for their preferred candidate.

Third party candidates at their strongest tend to be spoilers for the primary candidates to which they have the most common ground, essentially giving the election to the other guy.

And it’s what we in the US got and it won’t change because that’s what sustains the corporate oligarchy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:8 First-past-the-post elections.

The problem is not so much the first past the post system, but rather the party system. This results in people holding their noses while voting for a candidate, because to vote for someone else might let the other party gain control of the government.

Richard (profile) says:

The real problem

The real problem is the scientific illiteracy of lawyers, judges etc. In fact even many scientists are not very good with statistical evidence hen it is to be used in court rather than the lab.

Probably the best people to employ to see through these lies would be magicians. I’d employ Penn Jillette on my defence team any day!

Dirk Ruffly (profile) says:

DNA evidence ... NOT

In two places you refer to the evidence in question as DNA evidence, but in fact this story deals with microscopic comparison of hair. That is, determining if a hair in evidence is substantially identical to a sample from alleged victim, perpetrator, witness, etc. DNA is not in play here.

This kind of comparison evidence has always been questionable, although seldom actually questioned in court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Microscopic hair and fiber analysis is not DNA analysis. It’s comparing hair and fibers in terms of characteristics (width, structure, color, chemical composition, etc.) typically looking for a match or mismatch of samples taken from a suspect and hairs recovered from a crime scene. As such, it’s been criticized for not being science-based (peer reviewed studies etc.). It’s an important distinction to make, because DNA analysis is one of the forensic techniques that has been scientifically derived outside of the forensics community.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Fiber evidence and similar evidence is used to exclude not to prove. Say you find there are 30 sort of viable suspects for a crime. Fiber evidence proves that 25 could not have done the crime, you are now left with 5 good suspects to investigate.

Now multiple different types of fibers (hair, carpet, clothing) combined could narrow the list done to 1 or 2 people. But you should have other evidence to tie the case together.

The real scandal is not the dodgy fiber evidence but how much of the other evidence is equally dodgy.

E. Gads says:

Hoover, a mighty fine vacuum cleaner

This three letter agency has been a crooked fraud from the get-go! Hoover himself sucked, big time (literally), although he had a big vocabulary and connections to blackmail most politicos, but somehow could not ferret out one of his own passing info for cash to the Chinese for over 30 years. His specialty was covering up and committing crimes in the process to obtain, influence, and retain power. Highly effective. Modern version highly efficient at scams and stings manufactured to target the mentally enfeebled. Should be replaced by a legit, honestly inspired organization that truly respects morality and rule of law as intended.

Tom Scott (profile) says:

Corrupt from top to bottom

Scratch the surface of any government agency from a township to the Federal government and you will find institutionalized, codified crime and corruption. Look at our full prisons, prisons for profit, cops killing anyone they want, claiming they were “In fear for my life” and walking. DEA sex scandles, the FBI, cops and DAs corrupting evidence and lying their way through trials for a conviction. No wonder people are beginning to shoot back.

GEMont (profile) says:

The Great Deception

The real problem with politics is that it is the opposite of what it appears to be.

It is a social system mechanism designed specifically to insure the ease of maintenance, control and exploitation of the larger poor labor pool population by the smaller population of wealthier people who control the national social infrastructure and the various operations that employ the poor.

It is the Custom of a civilization, that its Poor are the Customers of its Rich.

The movie; “Gangs of New York” is an excellent description of how governments form and why.

As long as people believe the myths, and ignore what is happening right in front of them, government and the parasites that own it, will thrive and human evolution will not.

Considering the ease which government affords the wealthy to corral, cajole, and control human populations, the only real recourse from this eternal social trap is, and always has been apparently, to “Get Rich Or Die Trying”.

jaquer0 (profile) says:

How to stop this: firing squads for officials who murder

“Flawed testimony” is just a pretty word for perjury. Perjury is a felony. Felonies that lead to the death of persons also constitute murder, a federal crime subject to the death penalty. Dozens of the cases where perjured testimony was presented by FBI personnel were death penalty cases and at least some of the defendants have already been executed.

The mainstream corporate media is all about “this testimony didn’t necessarily convict those people, there would have been other evidence” and “they were really guilty as charged.”

If you were on a jury in the case of a mafia hit man, would you accept claims that “my bullet wasn’t the lethal one” and “the SOB had it coming” as convincing defenses?

I say put these lying scumbags on trial for capital murder and then execute them on the White House lawn with a firing squad and see how quickly the rest start to think twice about committing perjury.

But further: formal or informal organizations that systematically engage in criminal conduct are “Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations.” The members are also members of criminal conspiracies. ALL members of a criminal conspiracy that results in murder are also subject to murder charges.

I’m not saying shoot ALL the FBI agents on the White House lawn. Not enough room. Let’s do a bunch on the national mall in front of Congress, others in front of state capitols.

It might have the helpful effect of reminding state governments and congresscritters that if they act as collaborators with criminal conspiracies, they might well meet the same fate.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” –Thomas Jefferson

There’s been too much blood from patriots; time for some from tyrants.

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