Richmond Times-Dispatch


March 16, 2009

Forensic experts gave flawed evidence in 4 Virginia cases in ‘80s, study finds

By Frank Green

Published: March 16, 2009

A first-of-its-kind study has found that forensic experts produced flawed evidnece in the trials of 82 men -- four in Virginia -- wrongfully convicted of rape or murder in the 1980s.

One of the Virginia cases concerned the late Mary Jane Burton, a forensic serologist who made a habit of keeping blood and other biological samples in her old case files.

The Virginia Law Review study, released today, was written by Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project. It examined 137 trials in which transcripts exist and forensic experts testified for the prosecution.

The cases are among 233 from across the country, 10 in Virginia, in which DNA has proved innocent people who were wrongfully convicted.

Garrett said that in 60 percent of the cases -- 82 of 137 -- in which forensic-expert testimony was available, they gave testimony overstating the evidence.

He stressed that the flawed testimony did not necessarily lead to a wrongful conviction and that the study suggests nothing about the overall quality of forensic work being performed in Virginia or any other state.

The Innocence Project has found the most common contributor to wrongful convictions is mistaken eyewitness identification.

The report does not specify the 82 cases, but Garrett said the four in Virginia were Willie Davidson II, cleared of a 1980 rape; Earl Washington Jr., cleared of a 1982 rape and capital murder; Edward Honaker, cleared of a 1984 rape; and Tory Webb, cleared of a 1988 rape.

Burton testified in the Davidson trial, in which Davidson was wrongly identified as the rapist by the victim. Burton testified during his Norfolk trial that the perpetrator must have had type O blood, eliminating about half the male population as the attacker.

However, in that case the victim's blood type masked the rapist's blood type, meaning that any male could have been the rapist. In the 1980s, forensic serologists examined blood and sometimes semen in an effort to determine characteristics not nearly as discriminating as DNA.

Garrett said that, in fairness, "there were a lot of analysts in our group of cases who made that same mistake. . . . It was by no means limited to Mary Jane Burton and that one case."

In addition to Davidson, DNA testing of evidence saved by Burton in her files has cleared four others of rape: Marvin Anderson, convicted in 1982 in Ashland; Arthur Whitfield, convicted in Norfolk in 1981 of two rapes; Philip Thurman, convicted in Alexandria in 1985; and Julius Ruffin, convicted in 1982 in Norfolk.

Tom Gasparoli, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said they have not reviewed the study and declined to comment. However, he said the department "works with the Innocence Project . . . and greatly values its mission and work."

Garrett said that overall, the study found invalid testimony from 72 forensic analysts employed by 52 laboratories in 25 states.

It also uncovered erroneous or unsupported testimony about the accuracy and results of forensic techniques such as hair, bite mark and fingerprint comparison and even DNA testing.

The study began with a request from the National Academy of Sciences committee examining the needs of forensic science. The academy's report released last month recommended the creation of an independent national entity to establish standards.

Peter Marone, director of the Virginia lab, was an author of the academy's report, which recommended the standardization of methods, ethics, technology and other issues that accreditation largely answers. The department has been accredited since 1989.

The Virginia lab was also a pioneer in the forensic use of DNA in the U.S. and established one of the first DNA profile databases. It is now conducting a groundbreaking study -- in large part made possible by Burton -- to clear anyone wrongfully convicted of rape, murder or other serious crimes from 1973 through 1988.

Garrett said the trial transcripts for the cases in the study "were fascinating to read now that it is known the people convicted were innocent."

"Yet few have looked at these records. Even after these wrongful convictions came to light, crime laboratories rarely conducted audits or investigations to review the forensic evidence presented at the trial," Garrett said.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com.


Junk Science
Truth in Justice