Donald Gates served 28 years for rape and murder. His conviction was based largely on testimony by an FBI laboratory expert, Special Agent Michael Malone, who said a hair found on the victim’s body belonged to Gates. DNA testing proved otherwise in 2009, and Gates was exonerated.
It’s bad enough that Gates spent decades in prison because of erroneous testimony. Worse, by 2009, prosecutors had known for 12 years that Malone, the expert who testified against Gates, had been issuing flawed opinions. They didn’t tell Gates or his attorney, and Gates remained in prison.
According to the Washington Post, an official review of FBI cases began in the 1990s in response to reports of “unreliable forensic evidence” generated by FBI laboratory examiners. Justice department officials say they were not required to inform defendants of the findings of the task force that conducted the review. They “met their legal and constitutional obligations by alerting prosecutors when they learned of specific errors.”
According to Post articles published in 2012, “many prosecutors made swift and full disclosures,” but many others disclosed information “incompletely, years late or not at all.” Overall, defendants were informed in fewer than half of 250-plus questioned cases.
In the interim, one man – who “would not have been eligible for the death penalty without the FBI’s flawed work” – was executed.
The inspector general who investigated the FBI lab, Michael R. Bromwich, said: “It is deeply troubling that after going to so much time and trouble to identify problematic conduct by FBI forensic analysts the Department of Justice Task Force apparently failed to follow through and ensure that defense counsel were notified in every single case.”
Amen. And the review was inadequate, to boot.
The task force that conducted the 1990s review looked at “only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab (Malone), despite warnings that problems were far more widespread ...”
Santae Tribble was convicted of murder in 1978. He served 28 years in prison. Kirk Odom was convicted of rape in 1981. He served 20 years. Key to each conviction was testimony from FBI laboratory experts other than Malone who said hairs found at the crime scenes respectively matched Tribble and Odom. In 2012, DNA analysis of the hairs proved otherwise.
Inspector General Bromwich said: “These recent developments remind us of the profound questions about the validity of many forensic techniques that have been used over the course of many decades ...”
Reporting by the Post has triggered “the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI.” With the help of the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Justice Department and FBI will now review thousands of cases including examinations conducted by all FBI hair and fiber examiners dating to at least 1985.
I’m horrified by reports like this. I’ve never analyzed hairs or fibers, but I’ve recovered and submitted plenty of them. I can only hope none of that evidence was misinterpreted.
email@example.com. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.