The US Justice Department knows that potentially innocent people can be victims of wrongful convictions based on flawed forensic work. But what happens to the prosecutors who allow this horrible practice to continue? Nothing.
A few years ago, we learned through some investigative reporting that federal prosecutors they failed to notify defendants, or their attorneys, about cases they knew were faulty or weak. This is horrible!
While these defendants were not all convicted of the death penalty, and were not put to death based on a flawed case, this conduct is inexcusable. Why is it that no one is held accountable?
A Flawed Criminal Justice System
The system is flawed and shameful. We need to become better advocates, pay close attention to every case at risk of wrongful convictions at both the federal and state level (where they are rampant!), and then share the information with the public. Knowledge is power.
Timing is everything. We should bring the issue to the forefront during this current presidential race, and keep it on center stage until it gets the attention it deserves. Let’s look closely at the death penalty, too, and ask if we should really consider the death penalty in a climate with so many risks of false conviction. Is this a punishment we should even impose on a convicted felon?
Beyond being cruel and unusual punishment, there is always a chance that an innocent defendant could be executed. That cannot be reversed, and it should never happen. And yet it does.
Too Little, Too Late
Two years ago, the FBI released a scathing report, one that shed new light on one of the FBI lab’ worst scandals: The inspector general said the Justice Department did not properly review all of the cases by FBI examiners whose work was known to be flawed. Even when the FBI knew their work had been shoddy and the wrong person convicted – in death penalty cases as well – they didn’t bother sending timely notifications to the prosecutors in those cases, and never notified defendants’ attorneys at all.
And, sometimes when the FBI did notify the prosecutors, they never told the defendants’ lawyers. As a result, innocent people were put to death because of wrongful convictions.
It took five years to identify 60 death-row defendants whose cases had been criticized. Because of this, state authorities failed to stay sentences, and three men were put to death.
This is horrible. As the most civilized nation in the world, we should not put to death men and women who might not have committed a crime, or who might have been convicted based on questionable evidence.
The Media Is Our Advocate
We need to stay on top of the shoddy practices and let the public know when we discover it.
Thank you to the Washington Post for reporting in 2012 that Justice officials had knowledge of flawed evidence and testimony that might have contributed convictions of innocent people. The Post focused on one Texas case, and three men in Washington, D.C., who were represented by the Public Defender Service and have been exonerated. Problems at the FBI lab first surfaced in the early 1990s, when a scientist-turned-whistleblower named Fred Whitehurst reported that sloppy work by examiners was producing unreliable forensic testimony. Justice officials then launched a task force (that was active from 1996 to 2004) to ensure that potentially exculpatory evidence involving criticized agents was turned over to defendants. That did not happen.
The Post found that such notification rarely happened and that not all flawed cases were properly reviewed. Justice Department officials responded to the report, saying they had been diligent in trying to protect defendants’ rights in undertaking a review of unprecedented size and complexity. In one case mentioned, police investigated a death near Howard University, but no crime was suspected. However, the Department agreed that certain aspects of the Task Force review could have been more efficient or effective. The 26 surviving death-row inmates whose cases were included in the review were later notified that their convictions had been re-examined.
After the Post report, the inspector general recommended the notifications and retesting of evidence in 24 death-row cases in which the defendant was deceased. What’s more, the inspector general’s office said the department should notify all 2,900 defendants whose cases were reviewed by the task force, starting with 402 defendants whose cases were so problematic that the task force obtained a fresh scientific review. Their names were made public.
We need to stay on top of these matters. We need to make sure they are brought to the public. Meanwhile, I wonder why the prosecutors responsible for shoddy practices that could have resulted in the death of innocent people are not held responsible. They are they not charged with causing the deaths, and long incarcerations, of innocent men and women. So who is responsible when innocent men and women die because of shoddy work by federal prosecutors?
It is unlikely any of those involved with this vile and unforgivable conduct will ever be prosecuted because they are part of a system that is flawed. But we need to keep fighting for justice. The best way is to beware of the practice, and the possibility of false convictions. Do your research. Report them. They are still rampant in state prosecutions.
Burdick Law has a history of fair representation for those charged with some of the most heinous crimes. If you are in need of a criminal defense attorney who knows the law inside and out, and will give you your best representation, contact Burdick Law today for your consultation at 248-325-5000.