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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 on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:54AM (#40655689)

    The question is which.

  • by AuMatar (183847) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:06AM (#40655757)

    Learning how likely we were to wrongfully convict is a benefit in and of itself. If it looks like a rare occurrence after testing a random sample, then we can feel confidant about the rest. If it's frequent, then we must look at all cases again-it's better for the guilty to go free than the innocent to wrongly lose their freedom.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:06AM (#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 Jawnn (445279) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:29AM (#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 houghi (78078) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:34AM (#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.)

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:49AM (#40656037)

    However, perhaps there needs to be a line drawn here, since this type of investigation (or re-investigation) comes with a significant price tag (likely to the taxpayer).

    As opposed to the price tag associated with keeping someone in prison?

    I question benefit vs. cost in those cases.

    Anything that reduces our prison population is worth the cost -- we have the largest prison population on Earth, and it is continuing to grow. We will soon have the largest prison population in human history (currently, only Nazi Germany and the USSR had larger populations). That has massive direct and indirect costs to our society, both in terms of money and in terms of the destructive effect that overly broad legal codes and overly powerful police forces have had on our rights and freedoms. Communities have been decimated by having 1/4 of their male population imprisoned. Once out of prison, people often have difficulty finding employment, which can and does lead to recidivism -- prison can turn an innocent, wrongly convicted person into a criminal.

  • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @12:13PM (#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 AngryDeuce (2205124) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @01:24PM (#40656641)

    And why is it that we have such a large prison population?

    The admittedly glib answer would be growing poverty, the idiotic war on drugs (that alone contributed to an enormous spike), piss-poor education/kids 'slipping through the cracks', inadequate focus on rehabilitation in lieu of punitive measures in the prison system itself, the privatization of the prison system which leads to prisoners being a commodity (Kids For Cash [wikipedia.org])...but there are a lot of reasons, obviously.

    Still, I fully believe it has little to do with having 'too much freedom' and everything to do with our failure to address the social ills that lead to criminal behavior.

  • Re:Mod Up (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sjames (1099) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @01:42PM (#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.

  • Nope. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @02:27PM (#40657015)

    Just because someone "admitted" guilt as part of a plea bargain doesn't mean they are actually guilty. Plea bargaining itself is a form of coercion, it's like putting a gun to someone's head and telling they you'll shoot them if they don't confess and give up their conspirators. Plenty of people have gone on to recant their pleas. The Norfolk Four [wikipedia.org] is an example you may be aware of. Most sensible people realize that plea-bargaining for easy convictions is a deeply flawed way of getting "justice". It puts innocent people behind bars and gives guilty people lighter sentences.

  • by sjames (1099) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @02:47PM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2012 @04:16PM (#40657771)

    One thing you have to understand about the federal court system is they stack the books so much against you, and the federal prosecutors can literally conjure up the most ridiculous bullshit and sell it to a grand jury to get an indictment or tell a judge such ridiculous bullshit to put you behind bars in solitary (like the hacker Kevin Mitnick case where they claimed he could call NORAD and whistle into the phone and start World War III).
    I've known people who have had to deal with federal indictments, and the public defenders they provide always scare you that its better in accepting a deal than taking it to trial, regardless of the circumstances. If its a difference between a decade behind bars or your life, yes, many people have and will simply take the punishment because the system is so corrupt.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:12PM (#40659225)

    However, for deterrence (and that's what we're talking about here)

    Deterrence? Prisons should not be about deterrence, they are supposed to keep dangerous people separated from the rest of society, so that the rest of society remains safe, and people are released from prison when we believe that society will be safe with those people walking free. Putting people in prison for any other reason is wasteful; it wastes a person's life and it wastes the resources needed to house them in prison.

    Non-violent crimes -- at least those that make sense to remain in effect (which excludes the entirety of the war on drugs, for starters) -- should be punished with community service, so that people can work for the benefit of the society they wronged. Bankers who defrauded people out of their money should be out picking up trash and helping to lay roads, as a form of restitution. Keep the punishment short, and make sure it does not prevent a person from working their day job; this should not turn into a system of slavery, just like it should not waste a non-violent person's life by locking them in a cell.

    Punishment is not effective

    Not as a deterrent; some people are capable of murder, and we need to keep them separated from everyone else. Stop thinking of things in terms of deterrence, and start thinking of how to maximize the benefit to society. It is detrimental to society to spend money and man-power keeping people in cages if those people pose no threat to anyone else. It is beneficial to society if people have a chance to contribute their labor as a way of righting their wrongs.

    Which means that we should rather work on crime prevention measures

    Not putting people in prison is a crime prevention method. There are communities that have been decimated by "lock 'em up" approaches to "justice," places where 1/4 of men are incarcerated. That breeds crime -- crimes on the part of children who were raised in unstable, impoverished homes, crimes on the part of former inmates who return home and discover that they cannot find a job (who wants to hire a convicted felon?), crimes on the part of families who are trying to help their incarcerated relatives.

    People make connections with criminal gangs while in prison; what do you think happens when they get out and face diminished employment prospects? They turn to those same gang connections for help, and they start committing crimes for money -- driving contraband-laden trucks, driving getaway cars, etc. The disproportionately high rate of recidivism among former prison inmates is well known.

    Which means, when it comes to adults, find them some work.

    Spot on, and like I said, former prison inmates face problems finding employment -- so we need to stop sending people to jail, and stop classifying non-violent, non-serious crimes as felonies. We also need to stop arresting people over drugs, which is the leading cause of incarceration in this country, and we need to reorganize our legal code to restore faith in the justice system. We need to stop having knee-jerk reactions to infamous crimes -- laws that do not expire, which are meant to prevent rare crimes from happening and which wind up being applied in novel, unanticipated ways.

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