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FBI Acknowledges Flaws in Hair Analysis Testimony

Apr 28, 2015

The Justice Department and the FBI have formally acknowledged flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered hair-analysis evidence against criminal defendants for more than two decades before 2000.

In 268 trials reviewed thus far, 26 of 28 examiners with the FBI's microscopic hair comparison unit overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the trials, the Washington Post reports. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project are assisting the government in the post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence. Among the cases, 32 defendants received a death sentence. Fourteen of the 32 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said. This information was released under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The Washington Post cautions that these errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict's guilt. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District of Columbia are being notified to determine whether the defendants have grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

Legal analysts say the question now is how state authorities and courts will respond to findings about problems with forensic techniques like hair and bite-mark comparisons that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.

The FBI and Justice Department said they will address all cases and said they "are committed to ensuring that affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance. The Department and the FBI are also committed to ensuring the accuracy of future hair analysis testimony, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science," according to the Washington Post. While Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, commended the FBI and the Justice Department for collaborating i in reviewing the cases, he said, "The FBI's three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster." Neufeld said the investigation must look at how the courts allowed this to happen and why it was not stopped much sooner.

The NACDL and the Innocence Project report that reviews of 342 convictions were completed as of early March. The FBI said it is difficult to review cases from before 1985, when files were computerized. The bureau said it has been unable to review 700 cases because police or prosecutors did not respond to requests for information. The same FBI examiners whose work is under review taught between 500 and 1,000 state and local crime lab analysts to testify in the same ways. Authorities in Texas, New York and North Carolina are reviewing their hair-analysis cases, and ad hoc investigations are underway in about 15 other states, according to the Post.

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