By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007
Two umbrella groups for criminal defense lawyers announced yesterday that they will independently review cases nationwide where the FBI used a discredited bullet-matching science and will try to assist defendants who might have been wrongly convicted.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Network said they were creating a task force of lawyers in response to a joint investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes." That investigation, published yesterday and today, found that the FBI has not taken steps to alert hundreds of defendants that they may have been convicted through the use of comparative bullet-lead analysis, a forensic tool that was discarded two years ago.
The FBI decided late last week to begin its own nationwide review of cases over the last three decades in which its experts matched bullets by checking lead content. It has promised to alert prosecutors to any instance of misleading testimony.
The two legal groups said they will assist the FBI in identifying cases that need testimony reviews.
"We are going to conduct our own vetting process and try to get down to the cases where there might be injustices," said Barry Scheck, the prominent New York defense attorney who is organizing the effort for both groups.
While the FBI's obligation will end after it has alerted prosecutors to past inaccurate testimonies, the legal groups will try to work with partners in each state to arrange help for any affected defendants, he said.
The NACDL, with nearly 13,000 members, is the largest professional group in the country for criminal defense lawyers. The Innocence Network is an association of nearly 40 state and local organizations that do post-conviction appellate work for defendants who continue to assert their innocence. The network grew out of Scheck's own Innocence Project, which has helped free more than 200 wrongly convicted defendants since the early 1990s using DNA and other forensic evidence.
Scheck praised the FBI for its quick response to the findings of The Post-"60 Minutes" investigation, particularly its plan to institute a monitoring system to ensure the accuracy of its scientists' testimony going forward.
"I regret to say we cannot depend on the prosecutors or the defense lawyers to monitor that adequately because, number one, they don't have their own scientific expertise and, number two, they don't have the financial resources to hire their own experts," he said. "Now we have to hope other local crime labs will follow the FBI's lead on this."