Evidently flawed

December 04, 2007

The FBI's failure to adequately inform the public about the veracity of bullet lead analysis has left many defendants in the dark about this discredited forensic evidence. It's taken a determined push from defense lawyers to shame the FBI into doing what it should have done two years ago: Help identify criminal convictions that turned on FBI analysis of this faulty evidence.

But the help may be too late for defendants in states that have strict deadlines for raising post-conviction appeals.

The questionable analysis was used to link a defendant to a bullet or fragments through its lead content. From the 1980s to 2004, the FBI's crime lab performed the analysis in at least 2,500 criminal cases, with fewer than 20 percent being introduced as evidence. The analysis could be a determining factor in how - or whether- a case was prosecuted despite its record of false positives and negatives.

Then, in 2005, the FBI stopped bullet lead comparisons after a National Academy of Science research panel raised serious questions about the conclusions that could be drawn from such analysis. But when lawyers for Innocence Projects in New York and Maryland took on individual cases involving bullet lead analysis, they found problems with testimony from FBI and other forensic experts.

A case in point: the 1995 murder conviction of former Baltimore police Detective James A. Kulbicki, who is serving a life without parole sentence. He has asked a Baltimore County judge to overturn his sentence based, in part, on the false testimony of a discredited state police analyst and the unreliable bullet lead comparisons.

Mr. Kulbicki's lawyer, public defender Suzanne Drouet, found that the testimony of a state forensic expert contradicted his own lab notes and that prosecutors characterized the FBI's bullet lead analysis as a "strong piece of evidence."

Those are disturbing findings considering the FBI's belated effort to set the record straight on bullet lead comparisons and, more important, a 2006 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that deemed them unscientific. Neither can acquit Mr. Kulbicki of murder, but they do raise serious questions about the evidence used to convict him.

Forensic science evidence - gun shot residue, bullet lead analysis and fingerprints - is increasingly under attack, and for good reason. America's system of justice is based on the presumption of innocence, and if evidence is suspect or, worse, knowingly faulty, it has no place in court.

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