Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people nationwide, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.
Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.
In addition, the Justice Department reviewed only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite warnings that problems were far more widespread and could affect potentially thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts.
As a result, hundreds of defendants remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.
Justice Department officials said that they met their legal and constitutional obligations when they learned of specific errors, that they alerted prosecutors and were not required to inform defendants directly.
The review was performed by a task force created during an inspector general’s investigation of misconduct at the FBI crime lab in the 1990s. The inquiry took nine years, ending in 2004, records show, but the findings were never made public.
In the discipline of hair and fiber analysis, only the work of FBI Special Agent Michael P. Malone was questioned. Even though Justice Department and FBI officials knew that the discipline had weaknesses and that the lab lacked protocols — and learned that examiners’ “matches” were often wrong — they kept their reviews limited to Malone.
Chemists claim they can distinguish between gunshot residue from various firearms.