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Posted By Michael R. Bromwich On April 25, 2012 @ 3:31 pm In News | Comments Disabled
The book about lives ruined by flawed forensic science now has another ugly chapter.
The Washington Post’s detailed investigative reporting, published last week , documents numerous instances in which forensic work performed by the FBI Lab and determined by the federal government to be problematic, or worse, was never brought to the attention of defense counsel.
The result: innocent defendants whose lives were ruined by faulty forensic science and who were then deprived – sometimes for decades, sometimes forever – of the basic information they needed to challenge their wrongful convictions.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique in our criminal justice system, and it highlights two major problems. The first relates to the continuing problems with the way forensic science is practiced and applied on both the federal and local level. The second relates to the way prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement agencies pursue – or fail to pursue – information that flawed forensic science may have played a role in securing convictions.
The evidence of weaknesses in the practice of forensic science has been growing over time. The many documented cases of wrongful convictions, which gained critical mass over the past twenty years largely through the outstanding work of the Innocence Project and its affiliates, led to a landmark National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report in 2009 that was unflinching in its criticism of the way forensic science has been practiced in our crime labs – most notably, with respect to the decidedly unscientific underpinnings of many of the forensic sciences practiced in those labs. The recommendations of that report constitute a critical unfinished agenda for the criminal justice system.
The problem focused on by the Post – inadequate follow-up in the face of evidence that convictions may be based on flawed forensic evidence – has been repeated elsewhere. In 2005-2007, I led a team that conducted a comprehensive investigation of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab. That investigation discovered flawed serology (blood typing) analysis in close to 200 cases. Our recommendation that efforts be made to locate relevant physical evidence and subject it to DNA testing was rejected by the local prosecutor and police department.
Ultimately, the recommendation was embraced over their objection by local judges, but the effort was poorly funded and encountered massive obstacles in locating evidence from cases that were decades old.
Several specific steps can and should be taken to address these systemic failures:
These reforms will by no means ensure that wrongful convictions will end. But they will reduce their frequency and make possible a better, swifter, and surer route to exoneration than our current system allows.
Michael R. Bromwich served as Inspector General for the Department of Justice from 1994-1999. He is currently Managing Principal of The Bromwich Group.
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