On "CSI," DNA analysis takes minutes to do. Fingerprints are matched in seconds. Hair comparisons are so easy to do that even detectives can take a look into a microscope, and see the match. We have been duped by TV to believe that forensics give quick, clear, easy -- and correct --answers.
If only it worked that way in real life. The Justice Department and the FBI have admitted that nearly every FBI forensics examiner in the FBI's microscopic hair comparison unit gave faulty testimony at every trial they testified in since 1980, reports The Washington Post. Twenty-six of 28 examiners gave faulty or misleading evidence in favor of the prosecutor in 257 of 268 trials. Of those 257 defendants, 32 were sentenced to death, 14 of which have either been executed or died in prison.
This is only the beginning. The FBI has only reviewed 342 cases and has about 1,200 more remaining.
Microscopic hair analysis is one of several pattern-based forensic techniques used to incriminate defendants. Another pattern-based forensic techniques is bite-mark comparison.
However, pattern-based forensics is subjective and unregulated. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, faulty pattern-based forensic analysis contributed to wrongful convictions in more than 80 of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.
The FBI has not found the root cause of this problem. It has admitted that FBI hair examiners did not have any written standards on how to properly present their findings in court, reports Fox News. Experts testified to near-certain matches, but used incomplete or misleading statistics, when there is no clear research on how hair from different people may appear similar or different.
The FBI will continue to review cases, and has offered new DNA testing in cases with errors.
Other Cases of Faulty Forensic Evidence
Sadly, this failure by the FBI forensics unit is not an isolated problem.
In Albany, New York, 12 State Police forensics analyst have been suspended following an investigation into cheating on a DNA testing competency test.
In San Francisco, California, authorities are investigating a crime-lab technician and supervisor who failed a DNA proficiency exam. This follows a 2010 scandal where a technician stole cocaine evidence leading to the dismissal of 1,700 criminal cases.
In Massachusetts, a drug lab chemist was sentenced to three years in prison after admitting she faked test results in thousands of drug cases.
These stories of incompetency are frightening, and reforms are absolutely necessary says The Atlantic. With the FBI continuing its review, we must wait to see what changes will arise out of the ashes of this new scandal.
- Real Justice at the FBI (The Harvard Crimson)
- Unproven Forensic Evidence: What to Do Next? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Crime Lab Closures Lead to Backlogs while Report Set to Criticize Widely Used Forensic Techniques (FindLaw's Common Law)
- Reliability of Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosis Questioned (FindLaw's Blotter)