FBI To Examine 27 Death Penalty Cases For Potentially Inaccurate Testimony

A Federal Bureau of Investigation review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed 27 death penalty cases in which the FBI’s forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from their testimony, mistakenly linking defendants to crimes they may not have committed. It is possible that some of these cases involve inmates who have already been executed. Under particular scrutiny is testimony regarding hair evidence. Although FBI laboratory reports have long stated that positive identifications could not be made through hair association, several agents testified that different hairs could be identified as coming from the same person with near certainty. The FBI is working with the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to identify troublesome cases, and has agreed to notify both prosecutors and defendants if they find that agents made mistakes in testimony or reports. The Department of Justice will also waive deadlines and other rules that restrict appeals and test DNA evidence if requested by a judge or prosecutor. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, called the review a “major step forward to improve the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States.” The review is still in its early stages, but has already led to a stay of execution for Willie Manning (pictured) in Mississippi. In Manning’s trial, an FBI agent had testified that a hair from the crime scene belonged to Manning. The FBI later admitted that the testimony “exceeded the limits of the science,” and a stay of execution was granted.

The problem is larger than just cases where FBI experts testifed. The FBI has offered training to state forensic labs that may have led to other misinformation. Some state labs are reviewing cases involving hair evidence. The Texas Forensic Science Commission directed all labs under its jurisdiction to review such cases.

(S. Hsu, “U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors,” Washington Post, July 17, 2013.) Read the Innocence Project’s Press Release about the FBI announcement. See Innocence and Arbitrariness. One hundred and forty-two (142) people have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973.