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Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.
In one Texas case, Benjamin Herbert Boyle was executed in 1997, more than a year after the Justice Department began its review. Boyle would not have been eligible for the death penalty without the FBI’s flawed work, according to a prosecutor’s memo.
Justice Department officials said that they met their legal and constitutional obligations when they learned of specific errors, that they alerted prosecutors and were not required to inform defendants directly.
By excluding defense lawyers from the process and leaving it to prosecutors to decide case by case what to disclose, authorities waded into a legal and ethical morass that left some prisoners locked away for years longer than necessary. By adopting a secret process that limited accountability, documents show, the task force left the scope and nature of scientific problems unreported, obscuring issues from further study and permitting similar breakdowns.