The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to undertake a careful review of 27 federal convictions resulting in the death penalty, along with some 2,000 other convictions for federal crimes. The reason for this unprecedented case review is data from the Innocence Project that misleading FBI testimony about microscopic hair analysis appears to have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than 23 percent of all cases in which the Project was able to definitively exonerate the defendants.
The review, which was announced last July, has already led to a last-minute stay of execution for a man who was convicted in 1992 of murdering two college students. In his case as in others cited by the Innocence Project, the issue was how microscopic hair analysis was handled by FBI crime labs in the 80s and 90s. All of the cases under review involve convictions for federal crimes between 1985 and 2000.
According to reports, FBI lab analysts may have exaggerated how important it was that human hair collected from crime scenes matched that of the defendants. Microscopic hair analysis was in its relative infancy during that period, and the testimony may have been misleading to juries because the analysts failed to make clear that the science was imperfect. Juries, in turn, may have mistakenly taken the hair evidence as clear proof of guilt, and therefore led to wrongful convictions.
All scientific evidence is imperfect, but it seems the FBI may have done more than puff up the benefits of an imperfect test. According to the Washington Post, the FBI’s own laboratory reports have stated since at least the 70s that microscopic hair analysis was not sufficient to make a positive genetic identification. Nevertheless, agents continued to testify that, when there was an apparent match between hair from crime scenes and that of the defendants, it was clear proof of guilt.
“The government’s willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors…signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles,” exclaimed a spokesperson for the Innocence project.
- The Washington Post, “U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors,” Spencer S. Hsu, July 17, 2013
- Star-Telegram, “FBI announces review of 2,000 cases featuring hair samples,” Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau, July 18, 2013