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This weekend, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department admitted serious wrongdoing in the FBI Laboratory’s hair comparison unit, one of the Bureau’s leading forensic units. Investigators have found that FBI forensics experts offered false testimony in hundreds of cases over two decades, or about 95 percent of all cases reviewed so far. These cases include 32 in which the defendant received a death sentence; in 14 of these, the condemned inmate has already been executed or died in prison. Thousands of other cases await formal review, which is likely to uncover similar problems.
The Washington Post called the admissions a “watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals.” Already, defense attorneys for hundreds of defendants convicted in these cases have come forward to demand retrials, and several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have issued statements or published open letters to the FBI director. Senator Richard Blumenthal said he considers the revelations “appalling and chilling,” while Senators Patrick Leahy and Charles Grassley demanded a “root-cause analysis.”
The scope of wrongdoing—and the possible complicity of agency higher-ups in the evidence manipulation—is yet to be fully established. But this much is abundantly clear: Repeated abuses of power deserve sunlight and full accountability.
The best strategy to combat evidence manipulation at the FBI is to draw from the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement, which in the past few months has so successfully called attention to police brutality against people of color. This means informing the public of the facts of wrongdoing, rousing a popular demand for change through bottom-up organization, and protesting until the demands for more accountability are met.
These revelations of false testimony are also another tragic argument against the death penalty, which should not be legal under any circumstances, even when forensic evidence seems to indicate guilt. Insofar as DNA tests and other forensic analysis are prone to human error and official manipulation, they are fallible, after all.
Furthermore, the news should remind us that the American criminal justice system, despite its promise that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty,” is all too often set against defendants. A culture of empowered prosecutors and elected judges often results in harsh and inconsistent sentencing. After the Revolutionary War, prosecutors were appointed officials, nominated by judges, governors, or legislatures depending on the state. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did election of prosecutors become the norm in most states. Today, 95 percent of all criminal cases end in plea bargains, and prosecutors exert inordinate power. Judges, too, face pressure at the ballot box to deliver harsh sentences, and studies confirm that elected judges are more likely to hand out harsh sentences in the months before they face the voters.
“Tough on crime" should mean the pursuit of real perpetrators and real justice, not trials where defendants are presumed guilty and law enforcement concocts evidence to gain a desired result. The FBI—as well as the criminal justice system at all levels—can do better, and the American people must demand that they do.
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