innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, January 07, 2005

Can labs be trusted?

Jimmy Ray Bromgard

Check out CNN this Sunday for a documentary on misconduct and mistakes at crime labs that have led to wrongful convictions. The program includes a report on the Houston crime lab and the story of Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who was convicted of raping an eight-year-old girl and spent 15 years in a Montana prison. A forensic expert testified at trial that hair found at the scene matched Bromgard, but DNA testing proved the hair didn't belong to him.

"Reasonable doubt: Can crime labs be trusted?" airs Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

"A spaghetti bowl"

Barry Scheck, flanked by freed prisoners

The barrage of criticism against crime labs continues. Texas lawmakers blasted the Houston crime lab this week for its sloppy procedures and shoddy conditions, according to the New York Times. One Senator said he'd "been in washaterias cleaner than the crime lab," calling it "a spaghetti bowl." In addition, Houston police say they still haven't worked through hundreds of boxes of misplaced evidence discovered last August from cases dating back to the 1970s.

The Innocence Project's Barry Scheck joined the chorus of criticism over the lab's contribution to wrongful convictions. Two of Scheck's clients were freed after 17 years in prison when the lab's DNA tests proved to be faulty. A third client released from death row on a false arson conviction is afraid to ever come into Texas again, according to Scheck.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Fingerprints can lie

The FBI fingerprint database may be contributing to wrongful convictions, according to the latest in the Chicago Tribune. The computerized database's digital images lack clarity and allow for manipulation by law enforcement. Police can use Photoshop to alter prints without leaving an electronic record.

Problems with the database first received attention in the case of Brandon Mayfield, the Portland attorney wrongfully accused of aiding terrorists in the Madrid train bombings. A false fingerprint match led police to suspect Mayfield.

The Tribune story is the latest in their series on forensic foul-ups, which deserves attention.