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Giving Voice to the Voiceless

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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The Innocence Project has seen forensic misconduct by scientists, experts and prosecutors lead to wrongful conviction in many states. Here are some of the more notorious:

Of the first 289 convictions overturned by DNA testing, 45% involved faulty forensics. One of those exonerations was Ray Krone. An honorably discharged veteran, Krone served 10 years "in a cell the size of most of y'all's bathroom," he said in Philadelphia, for a murder in Phoenix he did not commit.

An expert for the prosecution had testified that bite marks on the victim matched an impression Krone made for police on a Styrofoam cup. With help from the Innocence Project, DNA evidence cleared him in 2002. "I can't tell you what it was like to be called a monster," he said. "Thank God for DNA."

But many other faults were revealed.

"   A former director of the West Virginia state crime lab, Fred Zain, testified for the prosecution in 12 states over his career, including dozens of cases in West Virginia and Texas. DNA exonerations and new evidence in other cases have shown that Zain fabricated results, lied on the stand about results and willfully omitted evidence from his reports.

"   Pamela Fish, a Chicago lab technician, testified for the prosecution about false matches and suspicious results in the trials of at least eight defendants who were convicted, then proven innocent years later by DNA testing.

"   A two-year investigation of the Houston crime lab, completed in 2007, showed that evidence in that lab was mishandled and results were misreported.

Other forensic tests lag behind DNA in several ways, IP says. These tests include the bite-mark analysis from Krone's trial. They cannot point to an individual, and little to no research has been conducted toward standardizing them or defining their error rates.

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In an excellent article in the journal of the American Chemical Society, writer Carmen Drahl quotes attorney Josh D. Lee, co-chair of the Forensic Science section of ACS's Division of Chemistry & the Law, as saying, "problems arise when attorneys, judges, or juries attach the same aura of reliability to all forensic sciences regardless of their scientific merit."

IP has uncovered these kinds of abuses since 1992 and has developed recommendations for forensic labs, law enforcement agencies and courts to ensure that forensic science misconduct is prevented whenever possible. It is currently acting as a consultant to the DOJ and FBI in the second iteration of the task force investigating the errors made by the lab during the 1980s.

IP is calling on states to impose standards on the preservation and handling of evidence. When exonerations suggest that an analyst engaged in misconduct or that a facility lacked proper procedures or oversight, the Innocence Project advocates for independent audits of their work in other cases that may have also resulted in wrongful convictions.

And bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate for Congress to play a far more active role in providing oversight, beginning with studies and hearings that, it is hoped, will establish credible standards for the forensics industry.

It's unlikely that erroneous convictions or even many more exonerations are ever going to become a campaign issue in the presidential election. We seem to enjoy locking people up. The U.S. has about 2.5 million people locked up in federal, state prisons and county and town jails. And another 5,000 are under some form of supervision by the prison system.

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These people are invisible. They don't vote. That's why they'll never rise to anywhere near the top of politicians' priorities. That's why we need groups like The Innocence Project.

To give voice to the voiceless.

We should try to remember that when the next episode of CSI appears on our TVs. CSI is not life. CSI is entertainment.

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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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