Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bill to Shorten Prison Sentences

By William Fisher

Public blowback over thousands of men and women wrongly sentenced to long prison sentences based on flawed forensics twenty years ago has led to the introduction of new bills in Congress designed to put the faux science on a scientific fact-based footing.

The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012 has been written “To establish scientific standards and protocols across forensic disciplines.” It was introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, and Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Donna Edwards and Daniel Lipinski, members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Twenty years ago, sloppy, inaccurate and misleading conclusions were presented to juries in some 10,000 cases. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incorrect convictions based on faulty analyses, particularly of hair. A DOJ-FBI Task Force claimed it was studying the matter. But if it found anything illuminating, it turned that material over to the prosecutors, not to defense counsel. A senior special agent – a specialist in hair analysis – was fired. But that was it; the Task Force concentrated on that one forensics official. Whistleblowers claim there were many others who were guilty of the same types of corner-cutting and downright dishonesty.

The proposed legislation would establish federal grants to help create forensic-science standards, in an effort to help reduce wrongful convictions based on flawed forensic results. It would

 The Innocence Project, the public service law firm which tries to free prisoners through analysis of DNA, said in a statement:

“On Friday, leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Science Committee took a giant step forward in ensuring that forensic science is based on strong scientific research and governed by consistent and meaningful standard.”

The organization added, “For far too long, the forensic science disciplines have suffered from the lack of these components, resulting in practices that hamper law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes and contribute to wrongful convictions.  The bills that were filed today are an important component of ensuring that forensic sciences are based on solid, reliable research.  We urge Congress to act quickly to enact this legislation and to develop and support mechanisms for the practical implementation of the resulting research and standards.”

For example, last November Science Daily wrote of a man with a low IQ who had confessed to a gruesome crime. Confession in hand, the police sent his blood to a lab to confirm that his blood type matched the semen found at the scene. It did not.

“The forensic examiner testifies later that one blood type can change to another with disintegration. This is untrue,” Science Daily wrote. “The newspaper reports the story, including the time the man says the murder took place. Two witnesses tell the police they saw the woman alive after that. The police send them home, saying they ‘must have seen a ghost’."

After 16 years in prison, the falsely convicted man is exonerated by DNA evidence. But for all the years he was not exonerated, the jury placed more credence in a confession than in a scientific DNA test. Further, once a jury learns of a confession, it is less likely to dig into DNA tests aggressively. Research has shown that confessions can be every bit as unreliable as eyewitness identifications.

The proposed legislation still has a long way to go. The Senate version has no co-sponsors, of any party. House Republicans control the calendar and they are far more interested in repealing the Affordable Care Act than in passing any new legislation. It’s unlikely that any progress will be evident until the Lame Duck Session. Most Congresses over the last decade have seen similar bills introduced but never passed and often killed before any vote.

The proposed legislation is casting a cloud of negative credibility over the forensics discipline in general, despite the FBI lab having updated and upgraded many of its forensic protocols. For example, the continuing development of DNA has mandated that no hair tests can be considered authoritative unless they are carried out with DNA. And the presence of DNA has demolished much of the junk science mythology that surrounded forensics for years.

The Bill’s sponsors hope that the collaboration of a number of non-DOB/FBI organizations will help boost the review’s credibility. Working with the DOJ /FBI will be "The National academy of Sciences, The Washington Post, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, among others. All have all called for strengthened forensic science and standards."

This artilcle originally appeared on the pages on Prism Magazine