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FBI To Review Use of Forensic Evidence In Thousands of Cases 133

Posted by samzenpus
from the cleaning-up-the-lab dept.
NotSanguine writes in with a story about a review of the forensic evidence in thousands of criminal cases to see if any defendants were wrongly convicted. "The Justice Department and the FBI have launched a review of thousands of criminal cases to determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserve a new trial because of flawed forensic evidence, officials said Tuesday. The undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available, people familiar with the process said. Such FBI examinations have taken place in federal and local cases across the country, often in violent crimes, such as rape, murder and robbery."
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FBI To Review Use of Forensic Evidence In Thousands of Cases

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  • Whether? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The question is which.

  • Recommended Reading (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smpoole7 (1467717) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @09:54AM (#40655691) Homepage

    "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham. It details a case in which a man was wrongfully sentenced to death on bad evidence.

    I'm a good law-and-order conservative when it comes to things like this, but fair is fair. If someone is wrongfully convicted, it needs to be reviewed. In particular, the use of hair samples and other forensic evidence decades ago, before the advent of DNA testing, resulted in quite a few such wrongful convictions.

    • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:06AM (#40655763)

      I'm a good law-and-order conservative

      I bet you would change your tune if you were arrested for something like this:

      http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/oct/05/criminalizing-everyone/ [washingtontimes.com]

      "Law and order" attitudes are fine when the only people we imprison are murderers, rapists, etc. -- dangerous people who need to be separated from society to keep everyone else safe. These days, there are so many vague laws on the books that everyone is guilty of at least some felony, and by some estimates people are committing felonies every day just by living their lives.

      Until we see major, sweeping reforms to our criminal laws, "law and order" approaches to crime are dangerous.

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        That article fails to show how we are all criminals. Does anybody else have better articles? I'm curious to see if I really have broken the law or not.

      • by mosb1000 (710161)

        "Law and order" attitudes are fine when the only people we imprison are murderers, rapists, etc. -- dangerous people who need to be separated from society to keep everyone else safe.

        Fun fact: there are probably at least 6 million [amptoons.com] un-convicted rapists living in the US. The entire prison population is approximately 3 million.

        • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @04:59PM (#40658479)
          That is not a universally agreed upon number, since it is based on some feminists' expansive definition of the word "rape." The majority of the victims were "verbally coerced," not physically restrained or drugged -- which may be mean, it may be immoral, but to call it "rape" is stretching the definition of a very serious crime. Verbally manipulating someone into having sex, even by abusing a position of power, falls short of the proper and appropriate definition of rape as a crime. Being creepy does not make a man a rapist.

          Feminists have an unfortunate habit of using the word rape to shock people into action. At the time that the Koss study was first published, feminists had been so successful at shocking people into action that we were in the middle of a moral panic, imprisoning thousands of innocent men for child abuse that never happened (and going as far as to accuse some of subjecting children to satanic rituals and other witchcraft). We should be doing everything we can to avoid making that mistake again, not talking about the need to triple our already tyrannically large prison population.

          I'll be the first to say that there are problems with the way many police forces and colleges deal with rape. I have heard stories of women who were never told about a "rape kit," who were advised by people in positions of power to not press charges, who were turned away when they went to the police, who were told to just get on with their lives, etc. That is a problem, and that is a problem that should be addressed. However, we must also be careful in our solutions to that problem: we must ensure that innocent men are not imprisoned as part of the hunt for rapists, we must ensure that there is no confusion about what a man is being accused of when he is accused of rape, and we must ensure that the word rape does not become associated with normal sexual activity.

          I know two women who were raped (one by physical force, one by drugs), and the last thing I want is for people to doubt that they are victims of a serious crime.
          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            You're wrong, that number is for real rapists. It's not for some expanded definition. It's based on written surveys of male college students (stastically extrapolated, of course) who were asked using a question that didn't use the word rape but instead asked if they'd ever physically or through the use if drugs forced an unwilling woman to have sex. The written survey was followed up with an intview to confirm the result. That number is actually just the ones who'd done it more than once (on average 6 times

            • by sFurbo (1361249)

              in the furure, please read any linked material before jumping to conclusions like that. Who knows how many people have gotten the wrong idea from reading your uninformed comment.

              The linked material says "asking them about if they had ever forced a woman to have sex against her will.", it doesn't detail it as physically or through drugs. Is there a source for the phrasing of the question in the study?

            • who were asked using a question that didn't use the word rape but instead asked if they'd ever physically or through the use if drugs forced an unwilling woman to have sex.

              They were also asked if they had unwanted sexual contact following verbal coercion or a coercive abuse of power. Had you bothered to read the post you were replying to, you would have seen that I actually read the study, not some feminist's blog post, and that the study itself found that most victims fell into the "verbal coercion" category.

              You should read up on it, this isn't feminist nonsense like you've assumed.

              Maybe you should read the study, and see what kind of definition of rape is used in that study. The definition is a typical feminist simplification of the crime:

              • Could you please link to a PDF/PS/Whatever of the actual study then?

                • http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/55/2/162.pdf [apa.org]

                  Seems I misinterpreted some things the first time around (I was in a rush), which I apologize for, however...
                  • The definition of rape excludes coercion and abuses of power (one yes to question 4, 5, 8, 9, or 10 is required), but includes attempted but not completed acts (which is how a 1 in 4 figure is reported; without lumping attempted rape with successful rape, the figure drops to 1 in 7).
                  • The "alcohol or drugs" questions -- a large fraction of the victim
                  • Paywalled. Sigh :(.

                    It seems like you denying the existence of "rape culture". If so, you're quite wrong -- just look at how women are immediately threatened by rape if they speak up about discrimination(*) on the interwebs. The people who are making those threats are not necessarily rapists but they sure are implicitly "legitimizing" rape in the eyes of those who actually do rape. (I'm sure a lot of this is just general assholery, but it's still having the effect of legitimizing and/or trivializing rape.)

                    (*

                    • Sorry about the paywall; I am at a fairly large university, so I am not always aware of these things. This is part of my point, though: what we generally hear are tidbits from the study that omit details (such as the fact that the study's 1-in-4 figure counts both rapes and attempted rapes) from people who have a particular political motivation. If there is no publicly-accessible copy of the study, that is a problem in and of itself.

                      It seems like you denying the existence of "rape culture". If so, you're quite wrong

                      Where is the convincing argument for this phenomenon? We live in a cu

                    • by mosb1000 (710161)

                      The reason we count both rapes and attempted rapes is because both count. The same way murder and attempted murder will land you in jail. Ignoring attempted rapes would understate the size of the actual problem. And I was correct about the claims made in the article. Regardless of any issues with that study, two have conducted since and reached the same conclusions. Whether or not you agree this is "rape" it is a huge problem, and not one we can solve by throwing all rapists in jail.

                    • Regardless of any issues with that study, two have conducted since and reached the same conclusions

                      Then cite them; like I said, I am at a university, so I should be able to find whatever articles you cite. Prove me wrong; my instinct is that the same problems with the 1987 Koss study will turn up in later studies, but I am willing to admit that I could be wrong about that.

      • by sjames (1099) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @01:47PM (#40657129) Homepage

        It seems to me that the "law and order" attitude must be some form of poison to the soul. It always starts out well intentioned by getting unarguably harmful and bad people off of the streets. If it ended there it would be acceptable enough though perhaps not enlightened enough to actually solve the problem of crime. However, it doesn't seem to ever stop there.

        Over time the person afflicted with "law and order" seems to become so focused on harming the guilty that they lose sight of protecting the innocent. They become increasingly willing to harm the innocent themselves so long as it's in pursuit of the guilty. That's where we get the fishing expeditions, cheating on warrants, crazy raids that end in dead children, etc. Because of the soul poison, the 'law and order' afflicted no longer see a need for even an apology when they get things so horribly wrong. There is nothing but a hole where the part of them should be that would tell them they've gone too far and are becoming what they despised.

        Another sign of this poison is the prosecutor who is perfectly willing to hide exculpatory evidence and a judicial system that is willing to pretend that a public defender who doesn't meet the 'client' until the arraignment is actually underway and who has hundreds of current clients somehow provides meaningful legal council.

        Where it gets really frightening though is the prosecutor who will actively fight the release of a person who has been proven innocent post conviction. They reveal their true nature in that. They truly have no care for guilt or innocence at all, no care for law and order, they are simply psychopaths who enjoy tossing people in prison (or executing them). They become indistinguishable from the serial torturers and serial killers of the world except that they have so expertly manipulated the system that they are paid to get their psychopathic jollies at the expense of the innocent.

        Naturally, not everyone goes to that extreme, but if you sit back and examine the system as an outsider, it becomes apparent that few are truly untouched by it.

      • If they didn't have the paperwork to prove the orchids were legal then the orchids were not legal. Sorry but this is a bad example. And given that it comes from the Washington Times, you know there is more to the story. Just another attempt by the looney right to show how all regulation is bad and hurts innocent people (i mean, how were they supposed to know that trafficking in endangered species is wrong). Stupid foreign orchids have more rights that good red blooded american citizens, why, the gestapo is

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is precisely why the death penalty should be abolished: because death is permanent, and government cannot be trusted. This argument supercedes every other argument, pro or con, regarding the death penalty.

      • by Nidi62 (1525137)
        What? Death row inmates get full appeals, and usually have to wait 15-20 years for their sentence to be carried out. This gives plenty of time for new evidence to be discovered, new technologies to develop, etc. This isn't Soviet Russia where a kangaroo court declares you guilty and they pop you in the head as soon as you walk out of the courtroom. We have due process, we have an appeals process that has been proven to work. Your argument is nothing more than tin foil hat and makes no sense.
        • Re:Mod Up (Score:5, Informative)

          by whoever57 (658626) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:39AM (#40655971) Journal

          What? Death row inmates get full appeals, and usually have to wait 15-20 years for their sentence to be carried out. This gives plenty of time for new evidence to be discovered, new technologies to develop, etc. This isn't Soviet Russia where a kangaroo court declares you guilty and they pop you in the head as soon as you walk out of the courtroom. We have due process, we have an appeals process that has been proven to work. Your argument is nothing more than tin foil hat and makes no sense.

          I have three words for you: Cameron Todd Willingham. Convicted and executed on the basis of junk science. Actually, that's not true. The "expert" testimony was an insult to junk science even. There was no science involved, just pure speculation and mythology dressed up as "scientific".

          • by gweihir (88907)

            Simple solution: If somebody is convicted wrongly and executed, execute those responsible. I would call that fair. This will include the jury, key witnesses and the prosecutor. Maybe then they will make sure they are right....

            Actually this is the only condition under which I would reluctantly agree to the death penalty.

            • by BitterOak (537666)

              Simple solution: If somebody is convicted wrongly and executed, execute those responsible. I would call that fair. This will include the jury, key witnesses and the prosecutor. Maybe then they will make sure they are right....

              Actually this is the only condition under which I would reluctantly agree to the death penalty.

              The problem with that solution is no jury would ever convict anyone in a capital murder case. Why would a jury assume the risk of being wrong and being executed when there is no benefit whatsoever to them in those cases where they are right? If a juror is to assume a huge risk, there has to be a huge reward to balance it, otherwise they'll simply play it safe and acquit every time.

              • by gweihir (88907)

                Well, yes. This just proves the point that the death penalty is a bad idea. After all, if somebody gets executed while innocent, those responsible are not innocent at all and deserve death a lot more than the one that got executed.

        • Re:Mod Up (Score:4, Informative)

          by sribe (304414) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:40AM (#40655979)

          This gives plenty of time for new evidence to be discovered...

          And prosecutors, with the power and budget of the state behind them, fight tooth and nail to prevent that new evidence from ever being considered in court. On the other side, you have an (often uneducated) inmate with a prison library.

          Yeah, that's fair.

          Seriously though, the prosecutors who make this mistakes, and their successors, have a vested interest in never letting mistakes be revealed to the public, and sometimes go to absolutely ridiculous lengths to prevent DNA from being considered.

          • by Nidi62 (1525137)
            And that is why audits like this that the FBI doing are important and necessary. It should bring to light any discrepancies or irregularities, as the people that generally do these kinds of audits are separate from the people that processed the evidence and prosecuted the suspects.
          • by vakuona (788200)

            And prosecutors, with the power and budget of the state behind them, fight tooth and nail to prevent that new evidence from ever being considered in court. On the other side, you have an (often uneducated) inmate with a prison library.

            In my opinion, prosecutors should never be allowed to stop evidence being presented in court, unless the evidence has been pre-evaluated to be ridiculously unreliable. Even then, I would prefer that happens in court.

            In fact, I would go as far as saying, prosecutors should be mandated to bring all evidence in court, including evidence that might exonerate the accused. Prosecutors should only have the objective of finding the guilty party, and not convicting at all costs.

            • by sribe (304414)

              In my opinion, prosecutors should never be allowed to stop evidence being presented in court, unless the evidence has been pre-evaluated to be ridiculously unreliable. Even then, I would prefer that happens in court.

              I certainly agree with that--and of course DNA is not ridiculously unreliable ;-)

              Problem is after the trial, when new technology becomes available, like DNA for instance, then it really is up to a judge, as it should be, whether the new evidence is sufficient to possibly alter the outcome of a trial, and thus allow a new trial. I suspect that some minor tweaks to standards here might make a huge difference...

        • I'm unconvinced. Who's supposed to look for new evidence ? the guy from his prison cell, or the army of lawyers working for him for free ? Or the police/prosecution trying to undermine their own work ?

          Also, you often don't have due process, with the justice system banging on you then offering a deal.No due process here.
          Or you can get a free lawyer, he'll certainly do well against a full team from the DA, especially because there are never any connections between DA office and judges

          Remember the cases of tho

        • This isn't Soviet Russia where a kangaroo court declares you guilty and they pop you in the head as soon as you walk out of the courtroom

          No, this is America, where the majority of inmates never had a trial and just pleaded out on the advice of their lawyers. No, we are not the USSR yet -- the USSR was one of only two countries in the history of the Earth to have a larger prison population than the United States.

          We have due process

          Coupled with a legal system that makes so many activities crimes that most people cannot live their lives without breaking the law. The US government has actually lost track of how many laws are on the books -- we don't even kno

        • Re:Mod Up (Score:5, Insightful)

          by sjames (1099) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @12:42PM (#40656763) Homepage

          And yet, the state has managed to murder several people who were proven innocent posthumously. And it WAS murder since executions are only for the guilty.

          The truly horrifying part is the way in other cases where the wrongly accused happens to still be alive prosecutors often fight tooth and nail to proceed with the execution on procedural grounds in spite of irrefutable evidence of innocence. They show their true colors in that, clearly they have no interest in justice, they're just psychopathic serial killers who have found a legal way to do it.

          When we have people like that willing to lie cheat and steal if necessary to make sure the 'wheels of justice' grind the defendant/victim without regard for actual guilt, I would say we better stick strictly to reversible penalties. Note that custodial sentences are only somewhat reversible.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Taking away 10 years of someone's life is just as permanent.

        Not disagreeing with your larger point, just stating that all wrongful convictions are damaging to our society and its members regardless of the punishment involved.

    • by mrmeval (662166)

      The FBI policing itself doesn't wash. If they're going after states it's in their interests to find something but not if they go after their own. But who would police the FBI?

    • by Jawnn (445279) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:29AM (#40655895)

      I'm a good law-and-order conservative when it comes to things like this.../p>

      Things like what? Justice?
      How are truth and justice different for "conservatives"? You seem to imply that liberals are "bad" and not for "law and order". I live in a state that is rife with "good law-and-order conservatives" and our penal system is famous for housing wrongfully convicted me and women. You're right about one thing, fair is fair. Given that, how do we explain that it's always the poor who are wrongfully convicted? There's a lot more wrong with the system than not enough DNA testing.

    • by digitalaudiorock (1130835) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:46AM (#40656015)
      This Frontline [pbs.org] was a real eye-opener. The real issue is that, aside from DNA testing most all of the techniques used were developed by law enforcement and not the scientific community. Among other things they discuss the case of Brandon Mayfield [wikipedia.org], wrongly accused of the Madrid train bombings by "100%" verified fingerprint analysis...scary stuff.
    • by Burz (138833)

      "The Real CSI" on PBS' Frontline program.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzymPoQs9nE [youtube.com]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "before the advent of DNA testing"

      Even with the advent of DNA testing there are still forensic evidence issues. The FBI's own DNA evidence board has been trying for years to get the statistics quoted in cases changed to match the way DNA evidence is used nowadays. When the statistics were originally created DNA evidence was used in a very specific way, a crime was committed, DNA evidence was discovered at the scene, and DNA samples were taken from a limited number of suspects to be compared to evidence at

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      In particular, the use of hair samples and other forensic evidence decades ago, before the advent of DNA testing, resulted in quite a few such wrongful convictions.

      DNA testing is not foolproof by any means. In fact cases have collapsed in the UK because it emerged that DNA evidence was flawed.

      The initial claims about a "1 in 1 billion" match turned out to be bullshit. Depending on the sample quality it is more then one in a few million or less. In a country of 60+ million (UK) or 250+ million (US) that is a lot of false positives. The odds get even worse with a poor sample, and after "amplification" it becomes basically worthless.

      Lawyers like to talk about how DNA "pl

    • by gweihir (88907)

      There are no "good" law-and-order conservatives. Law-and-order is a fundamentally flawed way to view the world.

  • by dbIII (701233) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:06AM (#40655755)
    Did they suddenly work out that lie detectors were a fraud?
    Seriously, the FBI have been an international laughing stock for decades for that one.
    • by c0lo (1497653)

      Did they suddenly work out that lie detectors were a fraud?

      No. Lately, they discovered that keeping a person in jail (and building new jails) costs much more than re-examining the case.

  • If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!

  • by myowntrueself (607117) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:28AM (#40655891)

    its a good job the USA doesn't have the death penalty for those crimes!!!

    oh... wait

    • by Nidi62 (1525137)

      its a good job the USA doesn't have the death penalty for those crimes!!!

      oh... wait

      It's a shame we don't have a very lengthy appeals process.

      oh... wait

  • by houghi (78078) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:34AM (#40655945)

    Perhaps in some exceptions will this lead to a mistrial. The general idea will be that those people are locked up. because they are guilty. Stupid reasoning? Sure it is, but that is what many years of CSI and other shows and movies have learned us: There is no need for due process. The people looking for the bad people are judge, jury and executioner.

    What is even more worrying is that it happened in thousands of cases and nobody picked up on it.
    Not the defense. Perhaps because they were lied to.
    Not the judge. Who should know that.

    And how many cases were settled outside court? MAFIAA and logfiles anybody?

    Where I used to work, police came regularly asking for evidence. Whenever they came without any official papers (i.e. a court order) we told them we would keep it aside till they had it. This because of two reasons.
    1) We did not wanted to get sued. (Never happened with us)
    2) We wanted to get the bad guys as well. Not having the proper proof could mean dropping the case. (Had that happen at least once that I know off. Somebody gave evidence and the bad guy could walk.)
    3) They could not come because of personal vendetta against somebody or some protocol or organisation. (Have seen them trying that as well. And no, we did not give in. We even escorted them out of the building. Pity they were not in uniform, because that would have been hilarious.)

    • how many cases were settled outside court?

      So many criminal cases are pleaded out that if everyone exercised their right to a trial, the entire system would come grinding to a halt:

      https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/go-to-trial-crash-the-justice-system.html [nytimes.com]

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      What is even more worrying is that it happened in thousands of cases and nobody picked up on it.
      Not the defense. Perhaps because they were lied to.
      Not the judge. Who should know that.

      The problem is that if the defence is told that the prosecution will call an expert to testify that someone's fingerprints were found on an object or that their DNA was recovered from a crime scene they tend not to challenge it. Experts are supposed to be impartial and their testimony is often just accepted at face value. At the very least the defence should question them on the reliability of the evidence, but even then they are likely to say "99% match" no matter what.

      Cases in the UK where forensic eviden

  • by nnet (20306) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:55AM (#40656083) Homepage Journal
    Hope they reexamine the Leonard Peltier conviction.
  • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:13AM (#40656225)

    ...how about they review eyewitness testimony? Eyewitness accounts are known to be highly unreliable in many situations, including stress, poor lighting, poor angle relative to event, and more. Additionally, identifying a person is difficult if the person is not already known to the witness, especially if the witness is not of the same race as the person being identified. Worse, the witness interview process by the police may result in suggestion to the witness' memory - either intentionally or unintentionally.

    I would personally bet - though cannot prove - that more bad convictions are due to bad witness testimony than bad forensic evidence. By all means bad evidence should be cleaned up - a recent example is identifying bullets by trace metal composition, which was recently found to be questionable [forensicsguy.com]

    In the end, however, it's only a start in the right direction, and somehow bad witness IDs need to be reviewed as well. It would be great if there was some sort of independent auditing agency (independent of the adversarial justice system) that reviewed questionable convictions based on changes in what we know about the validity of evidence.

    Here's [stanford.edu] a good site that discusses eyewitness testimony effects. Scary, really.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Eyewitnesses don't contribute a helluva lot anyway in most trials. I transcribe court cases and there's a lot of, "I just saw the defendant a few hours before the murder. I always knew he was a murderer, I could tell by the way he looked he just murdered someone!" Then they get objected by the defense counsel and end up having to take back half their testimony. Most witnesses get destroyed by defense counsel unless they're completely composed and do not contradict themselves and most of the jury believe

  • DOJ and the FBI simply winged it. Doesn't inspire great confidence in any law enforcement agency to be honest.
  • Great chance for the FBI to use a new budget to test equipment, and smell like roses in the public

  • This is what REALLY drives me crazy about political conservatives in the US.

    They constantly complain about "big government" and its ability to interfere in your life. Obamacare "death panels" are a prime example. However, these same conservatives are *totally OK* with giving the government what is literally the most powerful tool possible: To legally KILL YOU!

    Conservatives constantly complain that government can never do anything right, that it's full of both incompetence and corruption, yet they're more

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