When people who commit crime remain on the streets while wrongly convicted people serve time in prison for their crimes, it represents a manifest injustice. In some instances, the wrongful conviction can be traced back to faulty forensic science.
Thankfully it rarely happens, but when it does government needs to make sure we have guardrails in place to protect life, liberty and property. Today Michigan legislators are working to ensure higher standards for state crime labs and more accurate analysis of criminal evidence.
The recently publicized case of LeDura Watkins of Detroit illustrates the need for more effective use of forensic science. Watkins served 41 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, based on microscopic analysis of a single strand of crime scene hair.
A police officer testified the strand found on the victim matched Watkins’ hair to a “reasonable scientific certainty.” Since 2013, the FBI and the National Commission on Forensic Science has advised that testifying to hair evidence in this manner is scientifically invalid. Watkins’ murder charge was dismissed in 2017. When released, he’d been incarcerated the longest time of anyone convicted and later exonerated in the U.S.
For decades, police and forensic scientists have worked together to solve crimes. Trained investigators collect evidence which is then analyzed by lab experts using such science as fingerprint comparison. Forensic science can help identify criminal suspects but it is not perfect. If not properly monitored, regulated and updated according to the latest standards, forensic analysis can implicate innocent people.
In Michigan 18 men and women have lost their freedom because analysis of criminal evidence wrongly pinned them as perpetrators. In each case, the real perpetrator eluded detection.
To sharpen criminal investigative tools that can identify the guilty and protect the innocent, the National Institute of Justice promotes state-based forensic science commissions (FSCs) to oversee crime-fighting techniques. The commissions are to include expert scientists and stakeholders in the justice system such as prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys.
In Michigan, House Bill No. 6026, would create a Forensic Science Commission comprised of forensic professionals, scientists, law enforcement professionals and academic experts. It would explore research on forensic disciplines, recommend best practices and establish uniform standards based on the latest science. It also could investigate possible problems and recommend changes for forensic crime laboratories to help Michigan move toward a more reliable system.
Innocence organizations have helped overturn the convictions of hundreds of people, many of whom have spent decades behind bars. In Michigan, 22 percent of those exonerated were convicted based on flawed forensic evidence. Nationwide, misapplied forensic science contributed to 45 percent of DNA-based wrongful convictions.
The costs of misapplying forensic techniques are too high, not only for those wrongly convicted. Public safety is jeopardized, victims are denied justice and public confidence in the system is undermined. Michigan taxpayers have paid out more than $8 million in settlements for cases involving flawed forensics, and more than $30 million for all civil suits involving wrongful convictions.
Representing a broad range of organizations calling for passage of the Forensic Science Commission Act, we urge the Michigan Legislature to help create a more-perfect system of justice in Michigan.
Kahryn Riley is director of Criminal Justice Reform for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Kimberly S. Buddin, Esq. is policy counsel for American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
Elizabeth Powers is a State Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project.