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DOJ review finds 27 possibly wrongful capital murder convictions

When the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to undertake a review of federal criminal convictions between 1985 and 2000 in which FBI laboratory analysts had testified about microscopic hair sample evidence, prosecutors probably didn’t expect to find many wrongful convictions. In fact, the review brought to light as many as 27 cases in which the accused was convicted of murder and has been sentenced to death. In fact, the findings have resulted in one man getting a last-minute reprieve -- a Mississippi man who was to have been executed this spring is still alive today because the Justice Department wants to retest the hair sample evidence used to convict him.

This unprecedented review, which involves as many as 21,700 FBI lab files, was initiated last year when the Innocence Project presented striking evidence that FBI lab analysts may have presented misleading testimony about the significance of hair-sample evidence to juries. Of some 310 people the Project has proved innocent, 72 of them -- more than 20 percent -- had been convicted in part based on apparently misleading FBI testimony.

This is especially troubling because the cases under review took place between 1985 and 200, while the FBI has apparently known about the flaws in microscopic hair sample analysis since at least the 1970s, according to the Washington Post. As is stated right on the FBI lab report form, even a close match between hair found at crime scenes and that of a criminal defendant is not enough to positively put the defendant at the scene.

Nevertheless, many FBI laboratory analysts routinely told juries that microscopic hair sample tests were capable of identifying defendants “to the exclusion of all others,” for example -- going well beyond the science and implying to juries that the test results represented near certain proof of guilt.

The 27 capital murder convictions now being reviewed are not the only potentially wrongful convictions discovered by the Department of Justice. Prosecutors reviewed the death row cases first, but thousands of others are awaiting reconsideration. At the same time, the FBI is performing its own review and plans to release its initial findings sometime this summer.

When the Justice Department identifies a possibly wrongful conviction, it will notify that defendant. It has also waived certain appellate deadlines and procedures in these cases. Both Justice and the FBI have affirmed that they will review every case, even if the defendant has already been put to death.

Source: The Washington Post, "U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors," Spencer S. Hsu, July 17, 2013

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