March 6, 2015

Kirk L. Odom exonerated after DNA retesting

wrongful-conviction-washington-dc-lawyerwrongful-conviction-washington-dc-lawyerA Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the city to pay Kirk L. Odom $9.2 million for spending 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Odom was convicted by federal prosecutors for the 1981 rape of a Capitol Hill woman inside her apartment.  Hair recovered from the crime scene was one of the key pieces of evidence which sealed Odom’s fate and all but guaranteed him a 22 year prison sentence.

In 2012, the hair follicles used to convict Odom at trial were re-tested for DNA analysis.  Tests confirmed Odom’s innocence and showed that another man, a convicted sex offender, committed the crime.  Odom was released from prison in 2003 and given parole, during which time he was placed on the sex offender registry.  The 2012 ruling exonerated Odom, removing him from the sex offender registry and his parole.

Odom’s 2012 exoneration allowed him to seek financial compensation from the D.C. government in addition to the $1.1 million in damages for false imprisonment he already recovered from the federal government, which prosecuted his case.  Odom filed suit against the  D.C. government under its 1980 Unjust Imprisonment Act, which allows persons cleared of their crimes to file suit for damages within six months of their exoneration.

The money given to Odom is one of the largest exoneration awards issued in history and is the largest issued under Washington, D.C.’s Unjust Imprisonment Act.  The judge who presided over the case, Neal E. Kravitz, calculated Odom’s damages at $1,000 for every day in prison, $250 for each day on parole, and $200 per day for the time period between his exoneration and trial.

Mr. Odom is one of five men in Washington, D.C. convicted of rape or murder whose sentences were overturned since 2009.  All of these men have one thing in common: their convictions were based on erroneous testimony and analysis of FBI forensics agents.

At the time of Odom’s trial, FBI forensics experts utilized side-by-side comparisons between the defendant’s hair and follicles recovered at a crime scene.  The varying characteristics of the samples were analyzed for such factors as hair length, color, diameter, and other microscopic characteristics.

FBI analyst Myron Scholberg, who handled Odom’s case, deemed side-by-side follicle comparisons as the best method available at the time.  However, there was no consensus among FBI forensics experts about how many follicle characteristics were needed to certify a match.

Some forensics agents used 20-30 characteristics, while other used 15 to match hair samples.  Scholberg only recorded three matching characteristics in his lab notes; the follicles recovered were black, human, and from an African American person.

Unfortunately for Mr. Odom, it took the FBI until 1984 to declared these methods could not positively identify hair follicles collected at a crime scene as belonging to one particular person.  Since that time, the U.S. Department of Justice discredited the work of 13 FBI forensics agents after it found a lack of written guidelines, poor scientific qualifications, and a propensity for bias to affect cases.

After discrediting the forensics agents, the DOJ began a review of the 6,000 cases handled by these agents and found more than 250 cases required the evidence to be re-examined.  Convictions across the country are being reviewed for possible flaws in analysis and testimony by by the discredited agents where microscopic hair analysis was a key piece of evidence.