It has been revealed in the last week or so that FBI analysis of hair samples is seriously flawed and that as many as 32 people have been sentenced to death based on this evidence, of whom 14 have been executed or have died in prison . The problem has arisen because of sloppy work by FBI examiners who have made claims about the ability to identify people from hair samples that are scientifically unsound. It is, according to the Washington Post, possibly the largest forensic science scandal in America’s history. Another 1,200 cases remain to be investigated.
Our view of the American justice system is strongly influenced by programmes like CSI and NCIS where clean cut, young, handsome and amazingly certain forensic examiners solve cases by clever scientific means. Stories often centre (or should we say ‘center’ for our American readers) around one of them poring over a crime scene and finding a tiny piece of evidence. Then back to the lab where they announce that said tiny piece of evidence is crucial in identifying the killer. Forensic scientist and police officers dash about the place and sure enough, find the killer who has a matching piece of evidence tying him to the scene. There seldom seems to be any doubt in what they say and we are left at the end of the episode with the right man or woman ‘going down’.
The problem is that not all science is like that. There is not always that degree of certainty, merely probabilities. When it comes to condemning a person to death – the ultimate penalty from which there is no retreat – then it is necessary to be certain. The problem is made worse because defendants who are poor are not able to employ lawyers able to challenge the evidence properly. Some lawyers may be doing their first capital trial and have little relevant experience.
You might think that having admitted a major flaw in the evidence given by FBI experts, speedy reviews would be underway to put matters right. Well no, not in every state there isn’t. Appeal courts often refuse to look at newly discovered evidence because claims of actual innocence are never grounds for habeas corpus relief.
The USA is the only country in the Americas with the death penalty and the southern states are the keenest users of it. As we have commented before, it may seem unfair that we frequently highlight the use of the death penalty in the States: China is the worlds biggest user of the death penalty, the precise number is unknown because it is a state secret, but it runs into thousands. Iran is close behind. The difference is that the States is the de facto leader of the free world. But there is a point here that China is a closed society which severely limits access to the internet and curtails a free press. America by contrast is a more open society and newspapers like the Washington Post are able to publish this information. So we can read about it and comment on what we see.
Amnesty is opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. It is the ultimate cruel and degrading punishment. It is not a deterrent and there is plenty of evidence to show that it acts against the poor and those least able to defend themselves. That one of the main methods of condemning people is flawed is yet another plank in the argument to end the use of this penalty in the USA.
Washington Post: 18 April
Guardian: 23 April
Social Science Research Network The Shifted Paradigm: Forensic Science’s Overdue Evolution from Magic to Law. William Tucker Carrington, University of Mississippi and M Chis Fabricant, Innocence Project Inc.