On July 12, the Justice Department and the FBI announced their largest effort to review closed cases that used forensic evidence and likely resulted in wrongful convictions. Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre stated,
"The department and the FBI are in the process of identifying historical cases for review where a microscopic hair examination conducted by the FBI was among the evidence in a case that resulted in a conviction. We remain committed to working closely with our law enforcement partners to go through thousands of cases, all of which are more than a decade old, and to assemble evidence for purposes of conducting a thorough and meaningful review of convictions."
The Justice Department determined a need for review following a panel discussion by the National Academy of Science ("NAS"), which urged Congress to launch an investigation regarding widespread wrongful convictions due to an erroneous crime lab system and standards of forensic evidence. A 2009 NAS report, also presented to Congress, determined that hair and fiber analyses were "subjective and lacked grounding in solid research and that the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate."
Many rightfully fear that damage has already been done, in terms of wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project reports that since 1989, there have been 294 exonerations of wrongful convictions in the U.S. alone. On Tuesday, July 10th, federal prosecutors in Washington stated that Kirk Odom, 49, who was convicted of a 1981 rape and home invasion, is innocent and thus his conviction should be vacated. Odom was incarcerated at the age of 18 and spent approximately 22 years in prison as a result of prosecutors and law enforcement relying on flawed forensic evidence. Recent DNA testing revealed that not only was Odom not the offender, but that the sample identified another man in the FBI's DNA Index System who had been previously convicted of a sex crime; however, he could not be charged because the statute of limitations on the 1981 rape expired. Similar stories include Santae A. Tribble, who erroneously served 28 years in prison, and Donald E. Gates, who also served almost 30 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.
Congress is now paying close attention to this incredibly flawed criminal justice system. Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) have proposed both a Senate and House version of the "Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012" to promote scientific research and develop uniform forensic standards. The Act would provide $200 million over the the next five years in grants, to conduct forensic science research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology would use $100 million to develop standards in the field. There is already a state version in North Carolina, which establishes a Forensic Science Advisory Board within North Carolina's Dept. of Justice, to review State Crime Laboratories and make recommendations for developing forensic science programs, protocols, and methodologies.
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