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Giving Voice to the Voiceless

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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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.

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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.


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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.


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.


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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."


Forensics go back a long way in the US. In the 19th century, forensic medicine was a recognized branch of medicine. By 1910, a French criminologist, formulated the basic forensic principle, "Every contact leaves a trace," and established the world's first crime laboratory.

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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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