Last night's "60 Minutes" opened with a story about the impact of a discredited forensic tool used by the FBI: Evidence Of Injustice, FBI's Bullet Lead Analysis Used Flawed Science To Convict Hundreds Of Defendants, 60 Minutes, Nov. 18, 2007.
For 40 years, the FBI tested bullet fragments and compared the lead content to other bullets, in the believe that bullets from the same batch would have distinctive chemical attributes (and those from separate batches would be different). But then in 1998, William Tobin retired from the crime lab. This formal chief metallurgist didn't drop metallurgy in retirement: instead he began a study of bullet lead analysis. Contrary to prior assumptions, he found that the lead chemistry could vary within a batch and match across batches.
In 2002, the FBI asked the National Academy of Sciences to do an independent study. Its National Research Council came back with a report that also questioned bullet lead analysis. A year later, the FBI told police departments and national associations of prosecutors and defense attorneys that it wouldn't run the tests anymore.
But what about the people who had been convicted based on this evidence over the prior decades? No one made any effort to contact them to say that there was a problem.
60 Minutes and the Washington Post teamed up with the Innocence Project and a team of summer associates from a Wall Street law firm to look for cases in which bullet lead testimony was a factor. They found 250 -- and believe that's just a fraction.
In one case, the defendant has always maintained his innocence. The public defender of his codefendant agrees. The codefendant told his lawyer 20 years ago that he had committed the murders alone, but the lawyer kept the confidence until after his client had died (a suicide in prison). When he went forward, a judge reported him to a disciplinary board. The defendant who asserts his innocence is still in prison.
On Friday, the FBI * * * acknowledged that it had made mistakes in handling bullet lead testimony and should have done more to alert defendants and the courts. As a result of the 60 Minutes-Washington Post investigation, the bureau said it will identify, review and release all of the pertinent cases, and notify prosecutors about cases in which faulty testimony was given.The Washington Post coverage ("Silent Injustice") is here.
The FBI also says it will begin monitoring the testimony of all lab experts to make sure it is based on sound scientific principles. FBI Assistant Director John Miller said, "We are going to the entire distance to see that justice is now served."