“The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster,” according to Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld. The Justice Department and FBI recently admitted that almost every examiner in the elite forensics team exaggerated their findings. What this will mean for the wrongfully convicted remains to be seen.
According to the Washington Post, Neufeld added “We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and the courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn’t stopped much sooner.”
The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) are collaborating with the federal government in a massive review of suspected problems with forensic microscopic hair comparisons. They’ve found 26 out of the FBI’s specialized 28 person unit exaggerated their findings in a way that benefited the prosecution. The flawed testimony was present in over 95 percent of the 268 convictions reviewed so far.
The project aims to analyze 2,500 cases, but the results are already deeply disturbing, according to Senator and former prosecutor Richard Blumenthal.
“These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.”
Experts even exaggerated testimony in 32 convictions that led to the death penalty. Nine of those death row inmates have already been executed; another 5 died while waiting in prison.
Microscopic hair analysis was considered the cutting edge of crime forensics before DNA testing became mainstream. Nevertheless, finding a match between a defendant and hair found at a crime scene comes down to the subjective opinion of the analyst. Deutsche Welle reports that there is no scientific protocol to support an analyst’s testimony.
Furthermore, there’s a conflict of interest with having such experts working in the same offices as the prosecutors, according to Penn State University’s forensic expert David Kaye.
“You’ve got a laboratory in the FBI working with a prosecutor from the Department of Justice in which the FBI sits – they have a relationship. You want to please people. It’s easy to see how people could be overconfident.”
The subjectivity of the tests and blind authority given to the experts created a perfect storm of flawed testimony and perjury.
Still, that might not mean much for the hundreds of people convicted in trials using erroneous testimony. Of course, many of the trials utilized other evidence to convict the defendant.
Defense attorneys who did not object to the FBI testimony during the trial will also have more difficulty challenging previous rulings.
Kaye told Deutsche Welle the future is still “very unclear.”
“The FBI, the Innocence Project, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are going around telling the old defense lawyers here’s a problem with the testimony, but whether they’re going to get relief from that is very unclear.”
FBI hair analysis has largely gone out of fashion because of modern DNA testing, but the review still has major implications for expert testimony on ballistics, bite marks, fibers, tool marks and other forensic fields.
[Image Credit: Time.]