It has been a good month for justice, and much needed in light of the growing public distrust of the criminal justice system. George Perrot, 48, became a free man earlier this month, when a Massachusetts Superior Court judge overturned his 1992 rape conviction.
Prosecutors had built their case on the analysis of a single strand of hair, relying on an area of forensic science that has since been discredited. This was apparently one of the first successful challenges of such evidence, but it will not be the last. There is a looming crisis in forensic science that promises to plunge the American system of criminal justice into disarray.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a damning report concluding that, with the exception of DNA analysis, traditionally accepted forensic techniques are substandard in terms of scientific rigor. Convictions based on hair, bite marks, and handwriting comparisons are suspect. In the same way that eyewitness testimony must be taken with more than a grain of salt, analyses of fibers, blood spatters, and even fingerprints are of questionable probative value. Not having been validated scientifically, such crime-lab practices are, for the most part, a legacy handed down from one technician to another.
These methods may be excellent for generating or eliminating suspects. However, they require subjective interpretations by experts, which can differ widely, and thus are not sufficiently reliable to meet the legal standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Once judges permit defense attorneys to make a "junk science" argument at trial or on appeal, we can expect a flood of acquittals and exonerations. If judges accept the conclusions of the NAS panel, it will become far more difficult to convict defendants and have guilty verdicts withstand appellate review.
Even more disturbing than the over-reliance of faulty forensics are the unconscionable actions of criminal justice officials, especially those prosecutors who are more interested in obtaining convictions than in doing justice. In Perrot's case, for example, prosecutor Francis W. Bloom suppressed evidence that most likely would have led to an acquittal. Bloom failed to reveal that Perrot had confessed only after a grueling 12-hour interrogation that took place while he was high on drugs and without his lawyer being present. More important, the victim maintained that her assailant was clean-shaven, yet Perrot had a beard. Plus, she was adamant that Perrot was not the rapist.
At trial, Bloom created a false choice for the jury. He insisted that the only way the defendant could have been innocent was if the police had deliberately planted his strand of hair at the crime scene.
Individually, these procedural violations and factual inconsistencies were enough to overturn Perrot's conviction. Taken together, they reflect an insidious pattern that is all too commonplace.
A majority of wrongful convictions documented in the National Registry of Exonerations involve serious breaches of constitutional rights: Police officers who manufacture or destroy evidence; prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence or suborn perjury. These errors are not simply good-faith mistakes, but intentional and malicious travesties of justice. Similarly, ongoing research indicates that two-thirds of the 158 death row exonerations since 1973 involved the discovery of deliberate malfeasance.
In recent years, we have seen attempts to hold police officers culpable for their unjustified split-second decisions. Perhaps it is time to hold prosecutors responsible for their deliberate disregard for justice in an effort to win a conviction.
Richard Moran is professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College. James Alan Fox is the professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University.