Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $499,890)
Forensic science is a powerful tool for seeking truth and justice. However, exonerations have exposed limitations in some forensic disciplines, and in particular, pattern evidence. Medical evidence used to diagnose child abuse has also come into question and studies showing the lack of evidence for Shaken Baby Syndrome or Abusive Head Trauma (SBS/AHT) have resulted in exonerations. False or misleading forensic evidence is a contributing factor in 24% of all wrongful convictions.
In the last several years, California has adopted new, fairer standards of proof for courts to reverse convictions based on false forensic science and newly discovered evidence, rejecting previous onerous and almost impossible to meet standards. These recent changes in California law have altered the lens through which NCIP and prosecutors view evidence, and have expanded the number of potential innocence cases to include those NCIP could not pursue earlier because they would not have met the previous standards.
Through this project, NCIP will review California cases involving unreliable science. Cases for review include 41 questionnaires received from potential clients who were convicted primarily on unreliable SBS/AHT expert testimony, 231 cases from NCIP’s case database involving other unreliable sciences, and new requests as part of NCIP’s normal intake process. NCIP will adjust attorney caseloads to prioritize review of these cases and dedicate funds for expert review of medical reports, forensic reports, and expert testimony which will improve the quality and efficiency of case reviews. NCIP seeks to evaluate evidence to determine if a case warrants further investigation applying the new state law standards.
Once NCIP determines a case warrants further investigation, it will seek partnership with the respective prosecutor’s office. If after investigation, NCIP and the prosecutor’s office determine that a case requires reversal because new evidence meets California’s newly discovered evidence standard or scientific advances show the conviction is based on unreliable science, they will cooperate to have the conviction reversed and charges dismissed. Successful habeas petitions from this project can be used as templates for other wrongful conviction review entities in challenging cases of unreliable science, SBS/AHT misdiagnoses and false expert testimony. The education provided by each of these cases will also help move the scientific and legal communities away from relying on unreliable science. NCIP seeks priority consideration 1(A) for this project as discussed on page 7 of the proposal narrative.