The ballisticians

Faith in science and responsibility in forensics

One could call it a durrenmattian tragicomedy, were its effects on the lives of those affected no more than dramatic. Because of the results of a flawed forensic method, thousands of defendants accused of murder or manslaughter have been put behind bars in the u.S. Over the past 40 years.

The joint research of the cbs report program "60 minutes" and the "washington post" revealed that hundreds of defendants across the country are believed to have been imprisoned based on a now-discredited forensic methodology. The fbi is now accused of not informing the convicts, their attorneys, or the relevant courts that their cases could be affected by faulty evidence. Hundreds of them could now be reopened – if the deadlines for appealing have not yet expired.

Robert mueller iii. Appointed in 2001 by george w. Bush to head the fbi. Image: fbi

Justice instead of justice

In this context, the case of lee wayne hunt is currently being discussed in the us media. Hunt is serving a life sentence for double murder in north carolina and has spent more than 20 years behind bars. He vehemently denies his involvement in the crime to this day. He was convicted on the basis of the testimonies of two questionable witnesses and a ballistic evidence of the fbi laboratories: the comparative bullet lead analysis (cbla). However, it is now known that this is based on a methodically unclean forensic procedure.

The fbi amed that bullets cast from the same block of lead would have exactly the same chemical composition. For decades, fbi scientists believed that the lead used in bullets had unique chemical signatures. These should be able to be isolated and analyzed, so that individual bullets can be assigned to each other – and not only as part of a specific production batch, but also of an individual ammunition box. For the first time, the fbi used this method of analysis in the investigation into the assassination of john f. Kennedy. In the trial of lee wayne hunt, for example, a sliver of bullet from the crime scene was identified by this method as part of the contents of a box, which in turn was linked to hunt. The cbla method has been used by the fbi in thousands of investigations over the past 40 years. Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the cbla was still part of the federal police’s investigative routine – almost always in cases where more credible ballistics tests were not possible.

Faith instead of science

Doubts about the probative value of this method came to william tobin, the former chief metallurgist at the fbi, after he realized that the basic amptions of the method had never been fundamentally scientifically tested until then. Therefore, when tobin retired in 1998, he decided to pursue his own studies. He spent months buying ammunition, testing it, and researching manufacturers’.

Finally, tobin concluded that the bullets from a batch are not chemically uniform in composition. Likewise, the contents of an ammunition package are not always identical. Statistically, tobin said, it is possible that tens of millions of identical copies exist of every bullet manufactured in the united states. He accordingly described cbla as useless from a forensic point of view – a method, mind you, that had been used unchallenged at the fbi’s quantico lab for 40 years. The procedure was not based on scientific principles at all, but rather on subjective beliefs, as tobin comments in the "60 minutes" report.

Memos instead of deeds

Now, however, the second act of the drama began. In 2002, dwight adams, then director of the fbi lab, finally asked the national academy of science for an independent evaluation of the cbla method. Their national research council published a report about 18 months later: according to this report, the model used by the fbi to interpret results is unreliable and potentially misleading for the purpose of gathering evidence. This opinion was also shared by adams.

The ballisticians

Fbi lab produced forensically useless ballistics reports for decades. Image: fbi

Nevertheless, it took him another year to stop using the method in fbi labs and to inform police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys of its questionable value in negotiations. However, this was done in a rather ambiguous manner. In addition, neither the justice department nor the fbi initiated reviews of the affected cases. And this, although in many of the proceedings there are time limits of two to four years within which it is possible to request a new trial on the basis of new scientific findings.

Accordingly adams behaves helplessly in the tv report of cbs, who in best physicist manner withdraws to his position and the tasks within the fbi. He explained to have sent a corresponding memo to the fbi director robert mueller. To date, the fbi has done little to identify the procedures affected by the findings. "Washington post" and "60 minutes" have unearthed around 250 cases in the course of their research. However, treasures go up to a number of 2500. In the meantime, the fbi has at least agreed to re-examine cbla-based reports and share them with the courts and defense attorneys.

Meanwhile lee wayne hunt is still in prison – and the ballisticians wash their hands in innocence.

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