An agreement that may exonerate the prison sentences of thousands of individuals was reached on July 18th between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Innocence Project and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and its partners.
In this groundbreaking and historic agreement, the FBI and DOJ have agreed to review approximately 2,000 criminal cases in which FBI examiners conducted microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence. The agreement was reached after three men serving prison sentences due to convictions based on FBI examiners testimony on microscopic hair samples from the crime scene were exonerated by DNA testing. Those cases that will be reviewed are those in which FBI lab reports and FBI testimony included statements that were scientifically invalid.
The Innocence Project and NACDL have been working with the FBI and the DOJ for over a year to determine which cases the FBI erroneously provided incriminating, invalid testimony and/or lab results.
In the agreement, the DOJ, for the first time in history, has agreed to not raise procedural objections – statute of limitations and procedural default claims – to those criminal defendants seeking to have their convictions overturned due to scientifically invalid testimony or faulty lab results by the FBI.
Once the review of cases has been conducted, the FBI and DOJ will then notify those defendants, their lawyers and the prosecutors in cases where errors have been identified and will offer free DNA testing, as well.
Norman Reimer, Executive Director of NACDL said, “We hope that the actions taken by the FBI and DOJ will serve as a model for state law enforcement and crime laboratories throughout the country to respect ethical obligations to reverse wrongful convictions when learning about improper evidence.”
Before DNA testing was used in criminal cases, prosecutors across the nation relied on microscopic hair comparison analysis to link defendants to a crime, a practice that the National Academy of Science deemed “highly unreliable.” In the agreement, the agencies agreed there are significant limitations on the value of hair analysis not only because “the size of the pool of people who could be included as a possible source of a specific hair is unknown,” but also because “an examiner report or testimony that applies probabilities to a particular inclusion of someone as a source of a hair of unknown origin cannot be scientifically supported.”
The three men that were exonerated by DNA evidence served more than twenty years each after being convicted by faulty FBI lab results and/or scientifically invalid examiner testimony. These three men’s exonerations were secured by the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.
Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project said that the “government’s willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors…is truly unprecedented. It signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles.” Neufeld also added that this country “needs leadership in Washington to ensure scientific rigor and greater oversight over forensics to prevent these miscarriages of justice.”