Thursday, April 2, 2009

IPF Files Amicus Curiae Brief on Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis Issue

IPF was recently appointed as the "point" office for coordinating work in Florida cases where the FBI provided false or misleading trial testimony related to Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA). In this role, we filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in a death penalty case to assist the Florida Supreme Court in its review of a CBLA issue in that case and others that will come in front fo the court as we move forward.

Here is our press release with more information about the filing:

Innocence Project of Florida Files Amicus Brief with Supreme Court of Florida
IPF Urges Court to Allow Defendants to File for New Trial Based on FBI Junk Science

Today the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF), along with The Innocence Network, filed an amicus curiae brief with the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Wyatt v. State of Florida. IPF is urging the court to allow inmates, including Mr. Wyatt, the opportunity to present to the trial court recently received letters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicating that its agents gave false and misleading trial testimony regarding Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA).

For over forty years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) performed CBLA, which purported to be able to "match" bullets found at a crime scene to bullets linked in some way to criminal defendants (i.e., bullets found at a defendant's home). In its most egregious form, CBLA was used to show that the two sets of bullets were manufactured at the same time or even came from one particular box of bullets. In other cases, the FBI told juries that two bullets came from the same batch of lead at the same factory, without also telling them that as many as 35 million bullets may have also been made from that same batch of lead.

"When an FBI expert told a jury that they could link a bullet from a crime scene to a single box of bullets owned by a defendant, the jury surely believed it," said Bobbi Madonna, Staff Attorney for IPF. "What they weren't telling juries is that this conclusion was not at all based in science and should have never been allowed inside a courtroom."

The FBI in 2005 discontinued the use of this procedure. A 2007 exposé conducted by 60 Minutes and the
Washington Post showed that FBI agents often grossly exagerated the probative value of its CBLA conclusions at trial, which almost certainly misled juries and tainted verdicts.

"There had been some criticism and some skepticism developing about CBLA," noted Seth Miller, Executive Director of IPF. "But despite these criticisms, the FBI stood by their technique and their baseless conclusions until very recently."

In 2008, the FBI partnered with a Joint CBLA Task Force with the purpose of investigating every case in which they provided CBLA testimony. They have so far identified roughly 1,500 cases natiowide where CBLA testimony was presented at trial and have analyzed 156. Of those 156, the FBI has admitted to providing misleading testimony to the jury in 96 of them. The FBI began issuing case-specific letters in mid-2008, admitting that its agents provided improper testimony that likely prejudiced the trial. A disproportionate number of those letters--20 of the 96 total letters sent thus far--were issued to Florida inmates.

Under Florida law, an inmate not on death row has two years from the time that "new evidence" comes to light to file for a new trial based on that evidence. For death-row inmates, that window shortens to just one year. IPF wants the court to find that an inmate's clock for presenting a CBLA-based claim should "start running" when they receive their individual letter from the FBI, rather than choosing an earlier time when generic criticisms of CBLA began surfacing.

"What the Joint Task Force is doing is tremendously important. These letters are the product of their work and they mark the first time the FBI has acknowledged that they gave false testimony in individual cases," said Miller. "The ongoing unprecedented collaborative efforts between the FBI and other innocence organizations around the country to right these wrongs will only have value if the court provides the recipients of these letters the chance to prove that the FBI's false testimony tainted their trials."
Jimmy Ates, an IPF client and one of the 20 Florida men whose cases were tainted because of this false CBLA testimony given by the FBI, had his conviction overturned in December 2008 based on one of these letters from the FBI disavowing the testimony.

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