Leahy Pursues Forensic-Test Answers
Thursday, November 22, 2007
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday demanded that the Justice Department turn over to Congress all cases involving the FBI lab's use of a now-discredited bullet-matching forensic test and criticized the department for failing to alert defendants whose convictions were affected by the flawed science.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey that he should be prepared to face questions at an oversight hearing in January about problems with the science known as comparative bullet-lead analysis that were documented in a joint investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes."
"The new revelations about bullet-lead analysis are just the latest examples of the Department's inadequate efforts to ensure that sound forensic testing is utilized to the maximum extent to find the guilty rather than merely obtain a conviction. Punishing the innocent is wrong and allows the guilty party to remain free," Leahy wrote.
The science, dating from the mid-1960s, used chemical analysis of lead to match crime-scene bullets to those in a gun or an ammunition box owned by suspects. The FBI in 2005 dropped the technique because of concerns about its reliability.
The Post and "60 Minutes" reported Sunday that after ending the tests, the FBI never alerted defendants who were convicted with the help of the science -- even though the bureau knew that its experts in many cases had given inaccurate testimony or made statistically flawed matches. Instead, the bureau sent letters across the country stating that it remained confident in the test's scientific underpinnings.
Leahy sharply criticized those letters, saying that they gave "the false impression that these discredited tests had continuing reliability."
"I am also troubled that many cases affected by such analysis still need review, and that numerous cases involving possibly innocent defendants serving long jail terms have not been examined," Leahy said.
In response to the reports, the FBI has announced it will review all bullet-lead testimonies that led to convictions and alert prosecutors to any misleading statements so that defendants can be notified. Separately, two umbrella groups for criminal-defense lawyers are launching their own effort to help people who might have been convicted using the science.
Leahy asked that the FBI files documenting the 2,500 cases where the science was used since the 1960s be turned over to his committee. He added, "This will undoubtedly be a subject raised at the oversight hearing we are scheduling with you for January but may also require a separate hearing."
Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said the department is still reviewing the letter and will respond to Leahy's request. She noted that the FBI has already taken several corrective actions in response to the reports, including setting up a monitoring system to check the accuracy of lab scientists' testimonies.