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The dark side of forensic science

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KIRK L. ODOM is innocent.

Federal prosecutors finally have confirmed that Mr. Odom was wrongfully convicted of a 1981 D.C. rape, for which he served 20 years in prison. Mr. Odom was sentenced at age 18; this nightmare has consumed more than half his life, and all because of errors in forensic techniques.

Worse still is that he isn’t alone. As The Post’s Spencer Hsu and others reported in a series of investigative articles this spring, similar errors have led to the convictions of two other men in the District: Santae A. Tribble, who served 28 years in prison, before a judge overturned his conviction in May, and Donald E. Gates, who served the same number of years for a 1981 Rock Creek rape and murder he didn’t commit.

These three cases should serve as a call to explore forensic errors that could have put more innocent men behind bars — or could do so in the future. In the wake of The Post’s reports, the Justice Department and the FBI announced last Tuesday the largest-ever post-conviction review, which will examine all cases after 1985 that relied on hair and fiber examinations. This is necessary and long overdue.

However, while the review’s results almost surely will uncover deficiencies in previous uses of forensic evidence, many flawed practices — including hair-sample analysis — are no longer in standard usage. Beyond finding and acknowledging errors of the past, a focus should be on taking every conceivable step to eliminate future wrongful convictions.

In terms of forensics, there’s still considerable work to do. As the National Academy of Sciences recommended in a 2009 report to Congress: “Research is needed to address issues of accuracy, reliability, and validity in the forensic science disciplines.” Although hair-sample analysis may be obsolete, uncertainty attaches to other techniques still in common use, such as firearm examination and fingerprint analysis. To that end, Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) each have proposed bills that would, among other things, promote more scientific research and develop uniform forensic standards. These reforms are critical steps that should have been enacted long ago, and they should be enacted without further delay.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. expressed his office’s sympathy with Mr. Odom: “Though we can never give him back the years that he lost,” he wrote, “we can give Mr. Odom back his unfairly tarnished reputation.” He’s right: No amount of recompense — financial or otherwise — could right the wrongs done to Mr. Odom, Mr. Tribble, Mr. Gates and however many others have been wrongfully convicted.

All the more reason to take every possible step to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

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