Eugene Pitts has been in Arkansas prison for nearly three decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit, and a hair from the crime scene could potentially prove his guilt or innocence – if it can be found. An Arkansas judge granted Pitts the right to DNA testing under the state’s
2001 DNA access statute
. But crime lab officials now say they are unable to find the hair.
Pitts became a suspect shortly after the 1979 murder of Bernard Jones, the brother of former U.S. Attorney General Joycelyn Elders, because he had allegedly made threats to Jones’ wife. Microscopic hair comparison and other unreliable forensic science was also used to convict him. A state hair examiner testified – improperly – at trial that "in my experience as a hair examiner, the only times hairs have matched as they do with defendant have been when they were from the individual." Hairs should never be said to “match” one another; they should only be said to be consistent. Soil comparison and handwriting analysis were also used to connect Pitts to the crime. Neither of these disciplines follows a set of reliable standards, so findings and testimony can vary in every trial.
Whether Pitts is innocent or guilty, this case raises the issues of evidence preservation and improper/unvalidated forensic science. The Innocence Project
advocates for law enforcement agencies to retain biological evidence
from crime scenes as long as the defendant is incarcerated or under state supervision. And, as raised last week in the case of Innocence Project client Steven Barnes (another soil comparison case), we also
support the establishment of national standards for forensic science
to minimize the risk of improper or unvalidated science leading to wrongful convictions.
Read more about the Pitts case here
. (Associated Press, 12/1/08)