The use of microscopic hair analysis as evidence against defendants was flawed for over two decades before 2000, the Justice Department and FBI admit. According to the Washington Post, the agencies admit that almost every examiner an elite FBI forensic unit, the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, gave flawed testimony in nearly every trial where they provided evidence against criminal defendants.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are helping the government with the nation’s biggest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence, has reviewed 268 trials. The groups found that in over 95 percent of these cases, 26 of 28 examiners in the FBI unit overstated forensic hair matches in ways that favored prosecutors. The trials include 32 defendants who received the death sentence; 14 have either been executed or died in prison. The groups issued these findings under an agreement to release results after reviewing the first 200 convictions, Washington Post reports.
The FBI errors alone do not necessarily mean that the defendant was not guilty through other evidence, however. In 46 states ad the District, defendants and federal and state prosecutors are being notified of the situation to decide whether or not there are grounds for appeals. Previously, four defendants were exonerated.
There has long been skepticism surrounding subjective forensic techniques such as hair and bite-mark comparisons. The recent findings confirm these suspicions.
Legal analysts consider the admissions a landmark moment in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, Washington Post reports; the situation shows how the court system allowed juries to hear faulty scientific information. Since 1989, these methods have contributed to more than one-quarter of 329 wrongful convictions that were exonerated through DNA evidence.
The FBI and Justice Department stated that 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 Washington Post.
“The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.” said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, according to Washington Post. While he noted that the agencies’ efforts were a step in the right direction, he stated that “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,”