Faith in our justice system is scant in some communities – often the ones with the most direct experience with police, prosecutors and judges.
Like in Curly’s Barbering Services, a little shop in a Prince George’s County strip mall always packed with customers who talk long and loud way after their hair is done.
Curly, also known as Thomas Jefferson Brown, 46, has a soft spot for ex-offenders. A lot of his barbers are guys he’s giving a second chance after time behind bars.
In Curly’s world, there’s nothing surprising about the Justice Department and the FBI acknowledging that nearly every examiner in an elite forensic unit gave flawed testimony against criminal defendants for more than 20 years.
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“Well, yeah, they were lying,” one man said when I asked what they made of the news, which calls into question the work of the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit before 2000.
Of 28 examiners, the FBI says 26 of them gave flawed testimony in favor of prosecutors, The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu wrote.
The forensic scandal gives real teeth to the long-ignored complaints we hear from the over-prisoned pockets of the country, where generations of people are locked up in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Make all the jokes you want about everyone in jail saying they’re innocent. Yeah, yeah, they’re all angels in there. And there’s no doubt that plenty of folks on the inside are guilty of all kinds of crimes.
But there is growing evidence that wrongful convictions are more common than many people think.
Every year we hear stories about these innocent people, trapped in the amber time suck of prison, trying to reintegrate into a world that has changed at light speed and left them behind once they are set free.
The country has been grappling with the fallout of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner’s death after being held in a police chokehold in New York. This month we all watched the video of Walter Scott’s apparent execution by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina.
These biases, these incidents are real. Which brings me back to Curly, who I met a few years ago when I was chasing down one of these ex-offenders working for him who was trying to build his life back up.
While I was hanging out in Curly’s shop, I struck up a conversation with a guy named Maurice Sykes. He began to tell me his story, how he was one of these guys exonerated in a case and was trying to get back on his feet after 11 years in prison.
He’d been convicted in the 1995 homicide of a Bulgarian diplomat’s son outside the Bulgarian Embassy in Northwest Washington. Sykes spent more than a decade trying to tell people he was innocent, that he was out of town burying a relative the night of that murder. In 2006, a three-judge panel ruled that the prosecutors had screwed up evidence that could have proven Sykes’s innocence – and overturned his conviction.
Sykes was out, but he was depressed, humiliated and having a hard time adjusting to a world that had changed so dramatically.
His case didn’t hinge on flawed hair matches, but it is still an egregious example of the way justice can be miscarried and the huge, incalculable human toll these mistakes take.
On Monday, I asked Curly how Sykes is doing. Okay, he said, but he still hasn’t recovered – and neither have others Curly believes were innocent, too.
“It’s sad that this is the system,” said the barber, in a place where faith in justice can be thin.