A disturbing new report shows that the FBI may have a severe hair problem on its hands, one it’s fully aware of – and acknowledging – and one that may have led to an unknown number of wrong convictions spanning decades. Apparently, FBI experts gave flawed testimony in criminal trials for a period of more than two decades, and the agency is just now trying to fix its mess.
According to The Washington Post, the Justice Department and the FBI have 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.”
26 of the 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit overstated forensic matches, favoring the prosecution in more than 95% of the 268 trials reviewed so far. And there are even more trials to look into, assuming there’s data available to analyze.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project are assisting with this massive investigation. The Post says that the cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death, with 14 of them having already been executed or died while imprisoned.
“The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster,” Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld said. “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 Post does say that these errors do not indicate whether or not there was other evidence to prove a suspect’s guilt, yet defendants and prosecutors in 46 states and Washington D.C. are being notified in order to determine grounds for appeals. But the investigation was launched in 2012 after a report from the same paper revealed that flawed forensic matches related to hair might have led to the conviction of hundreds of potentially innocent people since the 1970s.
The FBI has identified some 2,500 cases where the FBI Lab’s hair matches need to be reviewed. More than 340 cases were already reviewed.
In 2002, the Bureau reported that its DNA testing found that examiners reported false matches 11% of the time. The Post found that in the District, where all the FBI hair convictions were reinvestigated, three of seven defendants were exonerated — and courts later exonerated two more men. The five people in question each served between 20 and 30 years in prison for either rape or murder.