The Washington Post has a very scary article about the FBI forensic unit, the people like those we have all seen in movies who analyze hairs and other physical evidence to establish guilt or innocence. This kind of evidence is frequently used in capital cases, such as rape or murder.
Unlike in the movies, the work that real FBI forensic unit workers have done is deeply flawed, and has sent many innocent people to prison for decades, or even to be executed.
How big a scandal is this? A review of the cases shows that in a stunning 95% of cases so far reviewed, workers gave testimony that significantly overstated forensic matches. In other words, the expert testimony was flawed (which is a polite way to say that they lied). “What we were finding was that the examiners … wouldn’t just simply say that there was a microscopic similarity [between the two hairs], but they would go beyond that and say it was a 100% match, essentially misleading the jury into concluding that the evidence had a certain value that it didn’t actually have.”
Put simply “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.” In one case, there was testimony that a found hair matched hair from the defendant, but it turned out that the hair was actually from a dog. “Two FBI-trained analysts… could not even distinguish human hairs from canine hairs.”
What makes this truly horrible is that this is not the first time we have been told that forensic analysis was being misused. And yet we keep sending innocent people to jail for crimes they did not commit. Back in 2002, the FBI itself reported that its own DNA testing found that their examiners reported false hair matches more than 11% of the time.
In Washington DC, of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony, five of them have been exonerated. Those defendants all served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder.
And this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Most of the forensic specialists used by states and municipalities were trained by the FBI.
But the real problem is not the FBI. The real problem is the fact that forensic crime labs across the country work for the prosecutors. In some cases they are paid for each conviction. Of course they are going to push for guilty verdicts!
One group that is fighting to correct these problems is The Innocence Project.