What do you do when even the most basic forms of investigation in the federal government are corrupt to the core?
We may soon find out as a sweeping overhaul of the FBI now seems inevitable after a news report claiming that incorrect testimony by the agency’s forensics unit was not just common, but constant.
The Washington Post reports 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.
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In 32 of those cases, the defendants were sentenced to death.
The FBI has effectively admitted the problems with their “subjective” techniques. They have also admitted that they have “contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.”
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The reforms needed are widespread and sweeping. And officials have known about this for years but are unwilling to call for the reforms. They would mean revealing wrongful convictions, guilty people set free and even, possibly, innocent people sentenced to death. Neither party on Capitol Hill seems willing to force the issue.
But now, in the light of day, they may not have a choice. The Atlantic summarizes some recent examples of this shoddy work:
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At a Massachusetts drug lab, a chemist was sent to prison after admitting that she faked the results in perhaps tens of thousands of drug cases, calling into question thousands of drug convictions that ended with people in prison.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, an independent review of the crime lab found “major errors in almost every area of the lab’s work, including the fingerprint and crime scene evidence processing that has continued after the lab’s drug testing was stopped in July. The failures include sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures … Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a ‘technical reference’ in at least one drug case … The lab lacked any clean area designated for the review and collection of DNA evidence. The lab stored crime-scene photos on a computer that anyone could access without a password.”
In Colorado, the Office of the Attorney General documented inadequate training and alarming lapses at a lab that measured the amount of alcohol in blood.
In Detroit, police shut down their crime laboratory “after an audit uncovered serious errors in numerous cases. The audit said sloppy work had probably resulted in wrongful convictions, and officials expect a wave of appeals … auditors re-examined 200 randomly selected shooting cases and found serious errors in 19.”
In Philadelphia, “three trace-evidence technicians have flunked a routine test administered to uphold the police crime lab’s accreditation, police brass announced Tuesday. Each technician tests hundreds of pieces of evidence a year for traces of blood and semen, so if investigators determine that the methods are problematic, it could throw countless court cases into question … “
In North Carolina, “agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period. Three of those cases resulted in execution. There was widespread lying, corruption, and pressure from prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials on crime lab analysts to produce results that would help secure convictions. And the pressure worked.”
Part of the problem is that FBI-linked crime labs receive money for each conviction they contribute to.
Statutes in Florida and North Carolina mandate that judges provide labs with remuneration “upon conviction” and only upon conviction. Alabama, Arizona, California, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Virginia are among the states with similar provisions.”
But despite the fact that egregious problems have occurred in hundreds of crime labs throughout the U.S., affecting tens of thousands of cases or more, and perhaps even sending innocent men to their deaths, most police officials and prosecutors remain unwilling to acknowledge what we should now see clearly: They’re incapable of running crime labs that reliably protect the innocent and identify the guilty, in large part because their conflicts of interest and biases are insurmountable.
We will soon see if this is something too insurmountable for even the Trump Administration to tackle.