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Monday, April 20, 2015

Faulty justice

North Carolinians are familiar with the story of Duane Deaver, former agent of the State Bureau of Investigation who participated in misstating or falsely reporting evidence of blood stains in 200 criminal cases. We still don't know how many people are behind bars who wouldn't have been found guilty in the absence of testimony from Deaver. In addition, his misfeasance or malfeasance — I'm not sure which — caused the conviction of Michael Peterson, who murdered my friend and co-worker Kathleen Atwater, to be overturned.

I thought Deaver was a one-off, but I was wrong.

Now we find that the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation "have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period." (Quote from this disgusting article by the Washington Post.) Specifically, "Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far".

That's bad enough, but in 32 of those trials the defendant was given the death penalty.

A few comments:

  • Were some of the individuals convicted by tainted evidence guilty? Sure. Would many of them have been convicted if the tainted evidence had never been introduced at trial? Probably. But that's not the point. Our society is predicated on fairness in court. Disregard fairness, and we run the risk of reinventing the egregious conditions that led to the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
  • After 50 years of getting "tough on crime" — a point of view widely ascribed to the silent majority — should we be surprised that truth has sometimes been neglected? It's unfair to put all the blame for these disasters on the investigators and lab analysts whose zeal overcame their judgment. Clearly they deserve much of the blame and must be held accountable, but we the people created the environment in which they worked. This is a moment for public repentance and reexamination.
  • Most law enforcement officers, forensic lab analysts, and prosecutors are honest, well-intentioned people. I hope they are as outraged as I am by the Deaver and FBI reports. If not, they should take a long look in the mirror and consider another line of work.
  • There are 101 reasons why the death penalty is bad, but the fact that it cannot be undone in case of mistake is near the top of the list. The simple truth is that our justice system makes mistakes. Don't believe it happens? Read the outcomes of verdicts investigated and nullified by the North Carolina Innocence Commission, an official state agency.