Government bureaucracies eventually betray the public’s trust. Give them enough time, and they will choose self-aggrandizement and nest-feathering over the enforcement of the law. They will get away with this for so long that it will corrupt the founders’ original commitment to moral reform.
I grew up in an FBI household. My father never had a bad thing to say about J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the longest-serving senior bureaucrat in American history: 1924-1972. He ran the FBI with an iron fist. Yet he had almost total loyalty from those under him. Congress was afraid of him. Lyndon Johnson kept him in charge long beyond the normal age of retirement. He was afraid of Hoover — probably the only man in Washington Johnson was afraid of. Hoover had voluminous files — files filled with blackmail-level material. He usually got whatever he wanted. He died on the job at age 77.
There is no question what was the most important service to the nation that the FBI ever performed. Nixon retained the structure of command after Hoover died. This left W. Mark Felt as Associate Director. Felt was Deep Throat, whose tips to Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon three years later. Felt had access to the files. He never actually said to “follow the money,” but he could have.
Now comes this story.
The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”
What went wrong? The Post continues: “Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project. Following revelations published in recent years, the two groups are helping the government with the country’s largest ever post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.
Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.
The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
This study was launched after the Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes, dating back at least to the 1970s. In 90 percent of the cases reviewed so far, forensic examiners evidently made statements beyond the bounds of proper science. There were no scientifically accepted standards for forensic testing, yet FBI experts routinely and almost unvaryingly testified, according to the Post, “to the near-certainty of ‘matches’ of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.”
(For the rest of the story, click the link.)