Criminal Justice

More Problems in the FBI Crime Lab

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Via the Washington Post, the FBI conceded two years ago that a bullet-matching technique it's been using for decades is faulty. Oddly, though, the agency doesn't feel it needs to notify the people the technique has put in prison.

Hundreds of defendants sitting in prisons nationwide have been convicted with the help of an FBI forensic tool that was discarded more than two years ago. But the FBI lab has yet to take steps to alert the affected defendants or courts, even as the window for appealing convictions is closing, a joint investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" has found.

The science, known as comparative bullet-lead analysis, was first used after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The technique used chemistry to link crime-scene bullets to ones possessed by suspects on the theory that each batch of lead had a unique elemental makeup.

In 2004, however, the nation's most prestigious scientific body concluded that variations in the manufacturing process rendered the FBI's testimony about the science "unreliable and potentially misleading." Specifically, the National Academy of Sciences said that decades of FBI statements to jurors linking a particular bullet to those found in a suspect's gun or cartridge box were so overstated that such testimony should be considered "misleading under federal rules of evidence."

A year later, the bureau abandoned the analysis.

But the FBI lab has never gone back to determine how many times its scientists misled jurors. Internal memos show that the bureau's managers were aware by 2004 that testimony had been overstated in a large number of trials. In a smaller number of cases, the experts had made false matches based on a faulty statistical analysis of the elements contained in different lead samples, documents show.

"We cannot afford to be misleading to a jury," the lab director wrote to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in late summer 2005 in a memo outlining why the bureau was abandoning the science. "We plan to discourage prosecutors from using our previous results in future prosecutions."

Despite those private concerns, the bureau told defense lawyers in a general letter dated Sept. 1, 2005, that although it was ending the technique, it "still firmly supports the scientific foundation of bullet lead analysis." And in at least two cases, the bureau has tried to help state prosecutors defend past convictions by using court filings that experts say are still misleading. The government has fought releasing the list of the estimated 2,500 cases over three decades in which it performed the analysis.

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  1. Fucking fascists!

  2. They should really rename the DoJ from Department of Justice to Department of Convicting Innocent People (Fuck, Who Cares?) to Pad Our Resumes and Further Our Careers.

  3. DOCIPTPORFOC?

    C’mon, someone needs acronym training.

  4. Department of Guilty Son-of-a-Bitches?

  5. What is it with the cops and this sort of thing? Is there something from old English law engrained here that says once the trial is over the BS box is locked?

    Years ago I heard a blurb on Off the Hook that someone accused of speeding, by being clocked through a measured portion of a mile, got his ticket tossed because he actually measured the cited distance and showed the police to be calculating speeds incorrectly.

    Of course, the police announced that they were not going to inform anybody else who got a ticket ‘in error’ about these facts and they could attempt to appeal if they liked.

  6. The government and our boys in blue never make mistakes they are out there to catch criminals and they wouldn’t have been arrested if they weren’t doing something illegal to begin with anyways i say we send em all to the chair!

  7. Bingo–

    You forgot to add “For the sake of the children.” 4/10, one point deduction for not writing in actual sentences. I give you 3/10. Keep at it, son, someday you’ll make Juanita proud.

  8. Is it wrong that I figured the FBI was getting jobbed in this because it was on 60 minutes?

    When I was watching last night, I just assumed that all the “innocent” people they had on where really guilty because 60 minutes was on their side.

  9. Guy Montag,

    What is it with the cops and this sort of thing? Is there something from old English law engrained here that says once the trial is over the BS box is locked?

    Its not just the cops. A while back, KY’s “intangible” tax was really to be unconstitutional by the state supreme court. It was removed from the tax returns. Anyone who hadnt filled out that section in the past couldnt be charged. However, they didnt even think about refunding money to anyone who had actually paid the tax in the past.

  10. Chuck: I also missed a reference to God and terrorism, and most of my words are spelled correctly. It’s really only a 1/10, I gotta keep practicing.

  11. In an attempt to be sensible – there just might be some other evidence that the convictions were based on.

    Not that you should be denied an appeal if this was part of the case against you.

  12. If this story were posted elsewhere, there’d a slew of comments to the effect of “So what? If they didn’t want to be wrongfully convicted then they shouldn’t have been suspects.” and “Police put their lives on the line every day…”

  13. In an attempt to be sensible – there just might be some other evidence that the convictions were based on.

    Not that you should be denied an appeal if this was part of the case against you.

    True. There must be something beyond “he had identical bullets in his home” like “and six were missing from the box with three unspent in his revolver and three of the same type in the victim, plus the powder burns and” . . .

    But, in agreement with you I think, the convicted parties should be informed if this flawed technique was used against them.

  14. Bingo, you need some homophone errors too. Saying “they are out there” instead of “they are out their” was a quick tipoff. 🙂 I’m a lenient grader, though.

  15. Whoa, fellas. Easy now. Put the nooses away.
    I see two issues here; one is pragmatic and the other a bit more complicated. First, the pragmatic: how does one go about reopening 2500 criminal cases, some of them going back 30 years? How does one determine the relevancy of the perhaps-discredited lead analysis? Was it 10% of the evidence? 25? 90? Do you suspend the sentences of all those convicted and retry them? That’s just the tip of the iceberg from a pragmatic standpoint.

    The other concern I have deals with our means of determining the reality of a crime at any given time. For instance, we have reliable DNA testing now. Are we ethically obliged to reopen every case that might turn on DNA evidence and testing techniques not available at the time of the trial? There’s a statute of limitations that limits future prosecution after a given period of time. Should there also be a kind of reverse statute of limitations that absolves the prosecutorial process of mistakes made in good faith? (I’m not talking about malfeasance. That’s another issue.)

  16. Is this the only forensic procedure that is faulty, or are there other forensic procedures that are also faulty?

    I mean jurors don’t know on their own which forensic procedures are reliable and which are not. They have to take the FBI expert’s word for that.

    It is too bad that criminal defendants don’t have as many funds as prosecutors. If they did, then any “expert” who had ever vouched for this test in court would never work as an expert witness again.

    Cross exam: so, Dr. Expert, is the forensic test in this case more or less accurate than the faulty bullet matching test that you mistakenly vouched for in court in this previous case?

    But, criminal defendants are poor, so Dr. Expert has no worries.

  17. Should there also be a kind of reverse statute of limitations that absolves the prosecutorial process of mistakes made in good faith?

    No. Exculpatory evidence should always be relevant. If it’s bleeding obvious that the defendant was, in fact, incapable of doing the act in question due to the evidence, you let him go. Period. If not, then at least give him a chance to use the evidence in an appeal.

    The idea of allowing people that we know are most likely innocent to rot in prison is reprehensible. The obsession of prosecutors with win-loss records is a big part of the reason that we’ve allowed people to remain imprisoned despite their likely innocence. And, of course, the issue isn’t really guilt vs. innocence, it’s whether the state could meet its burden of proof without evidence that wasn’t, in fact, evidence at all.

  18. TV crime shows have made most people believe that the police are infallible and can solve a crime in an hour. If it’s sweeps week the case may go TBC.

  19. A mistake made ‘in good faith’ is still a mistake that needs to be corrected no matter how difficult.

  20. “how does one go about reopening 2500 criminal cases”

    Start by notifying defense attorneys in those cases? Or maybe make a more general “mea culpa” announcement, and let the various defense attorneys review to what extent the prosecution relied on this evidence.

    Yeah, maybe there’ll be a rush to file appeals even when this wasn’t the deciding evidence, but given that it’s likely there are people in prison based largely on bad science . . . .

  21. Should there also be a kind of reverse statute of limitations that absolves the prosecutorial process of mistakes made in good faith?

    No. Why should an innocent person pay for “good faith mistakes” with his life to ensure smooth operation of the system?

  22. Don’t use the lab, if you can’t pay the tab. Yeah, don’t use it.

  23. Or maybe make a more general “mea culpa” announcement, and let the various defense attorneys review to what extent the prosecution relied on this evidence.

    This in my opinion, is the best route. A lot of us are making the assumption that this technique was the “silver bullet” in a conviction. More often than not, a conviction is based upon a body of evidence, and my guess is, if you really analyzed most of the cases, you’d find a very high percentage would still result in guilty convictions.

    As long as the government makes their findings loud enough, then the respective defending attorneys or inmates for that matter, can decide how much weight the bullet comparison had in their case and appeal accordingly.

  24. ed, whoa. The prospect of an innocent, or even just wrongly prosecuted, man in jail, and you have more pragmatic concerns?
    Whoa.

  25. The prospect of an innocent, or even just wrongly prosecuted, man in jail, and you have more pragmatic concerns?

    highnumber, reality falls somewhere inbetween.

    First, we have an imperfect justice system, so the prospect of innocent people being in jail is always with us.

    Ed was merely trying to answer the question of how you deal with this, without taking dynamite to thousands of cases and creating judicial chaos.

    And believe me, judicial chaos has happened before in other situations. Take the Washington State Supreme Court ruling which didn’t just revisit, but actually freed hundreds of convicted murderers, not based on their innocence, but based on the particular charge under which they were convicted.

    So the question becomes, how do you get those who are innocent freed when the evidence may not have been the deciding factor in the conviction?

    Do you just say “my bad” and unlock the cell doors for thousands of cases where this evidence was used as a part of the conviction? Do you grant automatic appeals? It’s merely the question as to how to handle this best.

  26. …but when the police do something, isnt that what legal means?

  27. BINGO
    YOU SOUND KINDOF AMERICAN BUT YOURE LACK OF ALLCAPS IS SUSPICIAS WHOS TO TELL ANYMORE WHAT PEOPLE MEAN FOR ALL WE KNOW YOUR A TEENAGE GIRL LIBERAL FROM MEXICO TRYING TO MAKE US LOOK BAD

  28. Okay, I can buy the idea that mistakes are made in good faith — but ONLY if the people who make the mistakes do everything practical to correct the situation.

    Think about it — it’s a lot cheaper to review all of the cases and let the innocent people out than to go on paying the cost of keeping them in jail!

  29. I vote REALER AMERICAN thread winner.

  30. “The science, known as comparative bullet-lead analysis, was first used after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.”

    haha, cuz that case was a forensics knockout! No loose ends there!

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