Three months ago, a man was released from a Phoenix prison after serving 42 years for the murders of 29 people – murders we now know he did not commit.
In fact, he may have actually been a hero, with witnesses saying they saw him pull several women and children from the burning Tucson hotel that he was later accused of setting on fire.
Our Mesa felony defense lawyers understand that what eventually freed him was new investigative methods that show no evidence that arson was the cause of the blaze.
In this case, it was forensics that ultimately freed him. However, what we are too often seeing is that the value of forensics or the “expertise” of self-identified experts are highly overstated.
This is precisely why as of this moment, the U.S. Department of Justice, in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is in the midst of a review of thousands of case files involving criminal convictions.
The investigation was launched following an 11th-hour stay of execution extended in Mississippi this spring when it was revealed that faulty hair follicle analysis by the FBI likely resulted in a bad conviction. That led to three D.C.-area men also being exonerated on similar grounds.
So far, this unprecedented review of these old cases has revealed evidence that at least 27 death penalty convictions were secured with FBI forensic expert testimony that could have mistakenly linked defendants to heinous crimes. The review has thus far shown that scientists overstated the veracity of that evidence when testifying before jurors in a court of law.
We don’t know yet how many of these cases involved errors or further how many of these individuals may be innocent. What we do know is that this has prompted a number of state and local agencies and labs to analyze their own procedures.
In the FBI’s case, it’s been revealed that there was a widespread practice of exaggerating the significance of alleged “matches” in the analysis of hair found at the scene of crimes. FBI scientific reports dating back to the 1970s show the agency knew those matches didn’t equal a 100 percent positive identification. However, when they took the witness stand, they made such evidence sound infallible.
Jurors tend to hold forensic evidence in very high regard. Sometimes, that is with good reason. However, forensics aren’t infallible and it’s important that defense attorneys take seriously their duty to thoroughly examine the methods and processes of the labs that churn out such evidence.
The FBI review spans some 22,000 case files generated from 1979 through 2009. It’s worth noting that many state and local authorities relied on officials at these same labs to process their own forensic evidence.
There have been more than a few cases in recent memory where other labs were found to have been sloppy with their practices or have technicians who overstated their qualifications or even outright lied.
The reality is that forensic evidence has the potential to be imperfect so long as people are imperfect.
That’s why who you choose to defend you is sometimes just as important as the issue of whether you are innocent.
If you have been arrested in Mesa, contact our Mesa criminal defense attorneys at (480) 833-1113.
Louise Taylor Emotional After Serving 42 Years in Prison for Wrongful Conviction of Hotel Fire in 1970, April 3, 2013, USA Today
U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors, July 17, 2013, By Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post