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 nationwide 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.
In one Texas case, Benjamin Herbert Boyle was executed in 1997, more than a year after the Justice Department began its review. Boyle would not have been eligible for the death penalty without the FBI’s flawed work, according to a prosecutor’s memo.
The case of a Maryland man serving a life sentence for a 1981 double killing is another in which federal and local law enforcement officials knew of forensic problems but never told the defendant. Attorneys for the man, John Norman Huffington, say they learned of potentially exculpatory Justice Department findings from The Washington Post. They are seeking a new trial.
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.
But two cases in D.C. Superior Court show the inadequacy of the government’s response.
Santae A. Tribble, now 51, was convicted of killing a taxi driver in 1978, and Kirk L. Odom, now 49, was convicted of a sexual assault in 1981.
Key evidence at each of their trials came from separate FBI experts — not Malone — who swore that their scientific analysis proved with near certainty that Tribble’s and Odom’s hair was at the respective crime scenes.
But DNA testing this year on the hair and on other old evidence virtually eliminates Tribble as a suspect and completely clears Odom. Both men have completed their sentences and are on lifelong parole. They are now seeking exoneration in the courts in the hopes of getting on with their lives.