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Forensic scandal raises questions about many state, federal cases

Despite what we've come to believe about the infallibility of forensic science because of the way it's generally portrayed by Hollywood, there are issues with some of it. As we noted in a post last month, there are plenty of holes in the fabric of forensics. As such, thorough criminal defense strategy tends to include casting a skeptical eye on any scientific evidence prosecutors put forward to bolster their cases.

When you think about it, many forensic touch points have been developed over the course of many decades. Fingerprinting, ballistics tests, shoe or tire print analysis and handwriting analysis come to mind. And then there is DNA testing.

Some experts observe, however, that nearly all those forms of testing were developed by authorities for use by prosecutors. DNA analysis is the only one of them that was first used in medicine and then got adopted in the legal arena.

This all comes into stark relief in light of a recent acknowledgment by the U.S. Justice Department. It admitted that FBI forensic experts responsible for doing microscopic hair comparison tests gave unsound testimony in virtually every trial they handled over more than 20 years up until 2000.

As a result of highly subjective interpretations, hair matches that favored the prosecution were made and testified to. And a review of 268 convictions by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project found that matches were overstated in 95 percent of the cases. In 32 of the cases, defendants were sentenced to death.

Those errors alone don't mean that the verdicts are automatically suspect. There may have been other evidence presented to support prosecution claims. But individuals and authorities in 46 states and the federal government have been told to check to see if there are cases that might now have grounds for appeals.

One U.S. senator and former prosecutors calls the findings an "appalling and chilling" indictment of the justice system that demands fixing. The question many are asking now is, how will authorities respond? The FBI and DOJ say they are committed to ensuring that justice is done in every case of apparent error -- reportedly tallied at about 2,500.

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