As Many as 27 Death Penalty Convictions Based on Forensic Errors? There Could Be More to Come

The discovery could be a major tipping point in the debate over the death penalty.

In an unprecedented federal review of old cases and whether or not authorities royally messed up with anything related to them, U.S. officials have said that they have uncovered as many as 27 potentially faulty death penalty convictions, mostly due to FBI forensic experts mistakenly linking defendants to crimes they did not commit.

The Washington Post reports that it does not yet know how many of the cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions or how many mistakes may now jeopardize valid convictions, but what is undeniable is that this discovery could, and should, become a major tipping point in the eon-long debate over the ethics of the death penalty. 

FBI officials are preparing to disclose the first results of their inquiry later this summer, as the death row cases are merely the first 120 in what is said to be 21,700 potentially problematic convictions. Much of this comes after theWashington Post reported in 2012 that authorities had known for years that flawed forensic work by the FBI may have led to some wrongful convictions, but officials didn't find it pressing enough to aggressively investigate, let alone inform those convicted of the crimes.

In an effort to minimize the sheer amount of work that awaits them, the review is focused almost exclusively on cases in which convictions may have been secured using FBI hair expert testimony.

Furthermore, the Post reports: 

Under terms finalized with the groups last month, the Justice Department will notify prosecutors and convicted defendants or defense attorneys if an internal review panel or the two external groups find that FBI examiners “exceeded the limits of science” when they claimed to link crime scene hair to defendants in reports or testimony.

If so, the department will assist the class of prisoners in unprecedented ways, including waiving statutes of limitations and other federal rules that since 1996 have restricted post-conviction appeals. The FBI also will test DNA evidence if sought by a judge or prosecutor.

“One of the things good scientists do is question their assumptions. No matter what the field, what the discipline, those questions should be up for debate,” said FBI laboratory director David Christian Hassell. Discipline will be a worthy trait when it comes to this undertaking, as Hassell and his team have a lot of explaining to do—and a lot of years to make up for. Here's to that. 

Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.

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