When Expert Testimony Isn't: Tainted Evidence Wreaks Havoc in Courts, Lives

By Gass, Henry | The Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

When Expert Testimony Isn't: Tainted Evidence Wreaks Havoc in Courts, Lives


Gass, Henry, The Christian Science Monitor


Kevin Bridgeman has been out of prison for almost three years, but it's possible that he never should have been in there in the first place.

A lab chemist is serving three years for falsifying forensics in Mr. Bridgeman's case and up to 40,000 other defendants. The chemist is already two years into her sentence, but Massachusetts' highest court has just now determined how to deal with the backlog. This case, while egregious, is not the only example of faulty forensics - although it is usually an instance of bad science, rather than a bad scientist, experts say. From microscopic hair analysis to fingerprinting, forensics that are treated as gospel in the courtroom have been proven to be anything but foolproof.

Across the country, the criminal justice system is grappling with the fallout from decades of faulty analysis in criminal cases that may have resulted in thousands of wrongful convictions.

In Bridgeman's case, in separate incidents in 2005 and 2007, police alleged that he sold a substance resembling crack cocaine to undercover officers. He pleaded guilty in exchange for the prosecution downgrading or dismissing some of the charges against him. In total, he served six years for both offenses.

However, what neither Bridgeman nor the police knew was that one of the chemists at the Hinton Lab in Massachusetts was simply eyeballing alleged drug samples, rather than testing them. In what some have called one of the most egregious example of tainted forensics in the United States, Annie Dookhan is now serving a three- year prison sentence for charges including having provided false testimony and altering test results to manufacture positive results.

Bridgeman, for his part, spends his days volunteering for a nonprofit that helps other former inmates. He hasn't sought to withdraw his guilty plea or have his conviction vacated. Neither have thousands of other defendants, either because they were afraid they would face harsher charges, like Bridgeman, or because they simply didn't know they could.

The human cost can be severe, even for those, like Bridgeman, who have been released from prison, says Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed the petition on behalf of Bridgeman with law firm Foley Hoag. Convictions can make it difficult for a person to get a job, housing, even a driver's license.

"We're talking about people who are already not in prison anymore, and they're dealing with crippling collateral consequences of being convicted," says Mr. Segal. "They want to move on with their lives and these tainted convictions can get in the way of that."

A state-ordered review in 2013 found that more than 40,000 cases could have been affected by Ms. Dookhan's misconduct. Lawyers for the state prosecutors say the number was likely closer to 20,000. By the end of 2014, only 1,187 defendants had filed for post- conviction relief, according to court papers.

"A lot of defendants didn't know how to find the courthouse," says Segal, "and many other defendants were too afraid to knock on the courthouse doors."

Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a case - in which Bridgeman was the lead petitioner - that Dookhan defendants can only be re-prosecuted under the terms of their original plea agreements. They will not face harsher penalties if they seek to clear their names.

"Courts have not yet heard from a lot of these defendants," says Segal. "That's why we think this ruling from Monday is such a landmark victory."

High-profile examples of forensic evidence being less clear-cut than is typically portrayed on "C.S.I." have littered the headlines in recent years. Perhaps the most significant is last month's admission by the FBI that, after reviewing 500 cases that employed microscopic hair analysis, examiners' testimony contained erroneous statements in at least 90 percent of the cases.

Defendants in at least 32 of those cases received the death penalty, according to the FBI. …

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