For 40 years, the FBI relied upon a forensic science called bullet-lead analysis. Based on the belief that the lead in bullets had unique chemical signatures, it was believed possible to break down and analyze and thus match bullets, not only to a singe batch of ammunition coming out of a factory, but to a single box of bullets.
A former chief metallurgist for the FBI began to question the science behind bullet-lead analysis, which led to a National Academy of Sciences report. This report found that the model the FBI used for interpreting results was deeply flawed and that the conclusion that bullet fragments could be matched to box of ammunition was misleading under the rules of evidence.
In a six-month-long investigation, “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post found that hundreds of prisoners had been convicted with the help of these now-discredited forensic tools. The FBI never notified these prisoners, their lawyers or the courts that these cases may have been affected by faulty testimony.
According to judges, the reporters created “a truly exceptional piece of investigative reporting … thorough, fair and timely. The amount of time and effort spent sifting through thousands of court documents to find those cases impacted by the faulty FBI lab analyses demonstrated a unique commitment to investigative journalism.
“The report was presented fairly, allowing all parties to voice their opinions, without added stylistic elements that all too often accompany reporting these days. The great restraint shown by the investigative team in this regard allowed the viewer to come to his/her own conclusions and, in the end, allowed the piece to make a difference in society … the true mark of exceptional investigative reporting.”
The difference caused by this report included an FBI promise that it will begin monitoring all testimony of lab experts to make sure it is based on sound scientific principles. In addition, the FBI said it will identify, review and release all pertinent cases, and notify prosecutors about cases in which faulty testimony was given.