Earlier this week, a Mississippi man escaped death by just a few hours when the state Supreme Court agreed to block his execution, scheduled for that Tuesday evening. Although hair sample evidence was available for testing, and Willie Manning’s conviction had hinged on unreliable jailhouse informant testimony, the court had just a week earlier refused to order DNA testing, and was prepared to allow the execution to go forward. It was only after the FBI revealed that its own analysis of key evidence was unscientific and invalid just days before Manning’s conviction that a court agreed, without comment, to block his execution.
Now, in another murder case involving similar FBI error, a man who spent 32 years in prison for a Maryland murder has been granted a new trial after DNA testing performed in March discredited key FBI statements that linked him to hair samples at the crime scene, and refuted statements about the origins of both the bullets and the gun used at the crime scene. The Washington Post reports:
The genetic testing contradicted testimony by an agent with the FBI Laboratory who said that he found [John Norman] Huffington’s hair in the bed where one victim was killed, claiming an accuracy rate of 99.98 percent.
“Due to the substantial weight given to the microscopic hair analysis by the jury . . . as well as the results of the DNA test . . . there is a significant possibility that the outcome of Petitioner’s case may have been different,” Dwyer wrote in a May 1 order that Huffington’s lawyers received Wednesday. […]
Huffington’s case was among those featured in a series of articles last year in The Washington Post, which reported that government officials knew for years that flawed forensic testimony and false hair matches may have led to hundreds of wrongful convictions. […]
Huffington’s lawyers said they did not know of specific problems with the FBI hair examination until informed by The Post that in July 1997, [Prosecutor] Cassilly considered and then rejected having the FBI review the case because the hair expert involved, FBI Special Agent Michael P. Malone, had been discredited.
Huffington was initially sentenced to death, before an appeals court lowered the punishment to two life sentences. The conviction hinged on both the FBI’s flawed data and the testimony of Huffington’s friend that he said he intended to use his gun to commit the crime. Huffington says he went home before the violent shooting and stabbing occurred.
Huffington’s case is one of potentially hundreds of cases in which prosecutors relied upon flawed evidence, according to a 2012 Washington Post investigation. Even in those cases in which the Department of Justice had already determined the FBI analysis was flawed, it only disclosed that fact to the defendants in 30 of 137 cases. Following the Washington Post report, the DOJ expanded the scope of its review to thousands of FBI analyses, and revealed the critically flawed evidence in Manning’s and Huffington’s cases. Only after the DOJ’s review did the FBI commit to testing Huffington’s DNA evidence. It is still unknown whether Manning’s DNA evidence will be tested.
In spite of this latest indication that other evidence frequently relied upon in murder cases is deeply unreliable, defendants do not have a right to have their available DNA evidence tested, even where the defendant offers to incur the expense. And in most states, defendants do not even have access to a national DNA database. While some individual prosecutors are supportive of greater access to DNA evidence, they frequently launch legal battles to block access to testing, incentivized by their interest in preserving their own convictions, at the expense of testing that might not only exonerate an innocent person, but also lead them to another person who committed the crime.