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Giving Voice to the Voiceless

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By William Fisher

Have you noticed? Aside from the dangerous mythology we're fed on the various CSI television programs, we're reading more and more real stories about innocent people being sent off to death row or serving long jail sentences for crimes they didn't commit. And then being freed -- usually years later -- by new evidence or old evidence intentionally buried.

Here's another:

Michael Keenan, now 62, spent close to a quarter century on death row. He is now free. He walked out of an Ohio courtroom after a judge determined that evidence that could have exonerated him in the 1988 stabbing death of a man found dead in a brook in a Cleveland park was withheld from his trial attorneys.

The judge dismissed the murder charge.

This is clearly a case of prosecutorial misconduct. There are many such cases, and we're beginning to read about these as well. There is a panoply of groups working to clean up our criminal justice system.

But dishonest or overzealous prosecutors, while able to wield their enormous power to inflict lifetimes of pain on innocent people, are not in fact the major causes of wrongful imprisonment.

Incorrect eyewitness identification is still the Number One cause.

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But ranking a very close second is a faut discipline that sometimes appears to be less science and more Kabuki.

This was the case back in the 1980s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) laboratory -- until that point considered to be the gold standard for forensics -- got caught in a fraud -- possibly a massive fraud.

A senior forensic agent falsified the result of a test performed on a single strand of human hair, testifying incorrectly that forensic science could identify the hair precisely, thus frequently placing the accused at the scene of the crime.

But this was not a one-trial mishap. It was the standard analysis for most crime labs. So this junk science statement was being introduced as evidence in courts across the country in as many as 10,000 trials simultaneously.

In the 1980s, a DOJ/FBI task force admitted the "error" and one of the agents responsible was fired. But now a different DOJ /FBI Task Force is re-investigating the incident. Sad to say, they have already corrupted the inquiry by advising only the attorneys for the convicted -- not the actual prisoners themselves -- of the lapse.

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In Philadelphia, Frederic W. Whitehurst, a Ph.D. chemist and former supervisory special agent at the FBI, discussed a colleague's false or misleading forensic testimony in multiple cases. He also described how scientists would "run dead flat into a sledgehammer" when their results didn't agree with their supervisors' thinking. Whitehurst's whistle-blowing led to the 1995 Justice Department investigation of the FBI Lab.

DNA is the star who hit the ball out of the park. Since the late 1980s, DNA analysis has helped identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent nationwide. The Innocence Project (IP) affirms that while DNA testing was developed through extensive scientific research at top academic centers, many other forensic techniques -- including hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis, and shoe print comparisons -- have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation.

And the organization added, "forensic techniques that have been properly validated -- including serology, or blood typing -- are sometimes improperly conducted or inaccurately conveyed in trial testimony. In some cases, forensic analysts have fabricated results or engaged in other misconduct."

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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