Hair Analysis Problems Shine Light on Forensic Science

Hair Analysis Problems Shine Light on Forensic Science April 21, 2015

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has now admitted that virtually every bit of testimony offered by their “experts” on microscopic hair fiber analysis during criminal trials was based on bad science. Hundreds of cases are now under review by the DOJ.

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The FBI 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 are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based 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 show CSI and its roughly 1400 spinoffs have probably done a lot of damage here, leading the public to think that forensic science is this undeniably true and accurate way of catching criminals. But the truth is that many types of forensic science are based on almost no science at all and a whole lot of innocent people are in prison or dead because of it.

It’s time for Congress to bring together real scientists to examine every type of forensic science used in criminal trials and pass a law with the necessary and appropriate safeguards to ensure that all techniques used are evidence-based and reliable. But I’m not holding my breath for that to happen. There’s no money in it.


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