In 2013, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI, in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), announced they would conduct a comprehensive review of cases before 2000 in which FBI laboratory reports and testimony included scientifically invalid statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis. The FBI and the DOJ agreed to undertake the review in 2012 after DNA testing exonerated three men who had been wrongly convicted based at least in part on erroneous hair testimony from three different FBI examiners.
Initial results from the review found that over 90 percent of the reports or testimony given by the FBI contained erroneous statements. As a result, the FBI notified state governors and crime labs across the country about its concerns, suggesting that all cases involving such evidence be subject to review.
Upon notification from the FBI, the Arizona Forensic Science Advisory Committee took action and formed a hair review task force to examine Arizona cases where hair testimony contributed to the conviction. The task force includes a diversity of criminal justice representatives from the attorney general’s office, the Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix police crime lab, the nonprofit Arizona Justice Project and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University’s Post-Conviction Clinic.
Because the task force anticipated the review would require a significant amount of time and resources, it applied for, and was recently awarded, a National Institute of Justice grant for nearly $500,000. The project, which began in May and will last for two years, will require documenting the results of the review, recording any resulting exonerations and suggesting policy changes.
“This review is extremely important to be sure there are no innocent people in prison and to ensure criminal defendants receive a fair trial.”
“We know today that we can’t make an absolute identification looking at hairs under a microscope,” Katherine Puzauskas, legal supervising attorney for Arizona State University Law’s Post-Conviction Clinic, told ASU Now. “But forensic analysts, back before we had the benefit of DNA testing, I think they felt more sure in their results than we do today.”
“Without funding, we would not be able to do this systematic review of cases in Arizona. This review is extremely important to be sure there are no innocent people in prison and to ensure criminal defendants receive a fair trial,” said Puzauskas.
The review project is notable because all sides—including defense attorneys, district attorney’s offices and crime labs—are working together to help exonerate those who were convicted based on erroneous hair testimony.
The crime lab’s role is especially significant because it took the first step to identify the pool of cases where hair microscopy was used over the last 30 years. Lindsay Herf, executive director of the Arizona Justice Project, explains, “There have been thousands and thousands of convictions in Arizona, dating back to when hair microscopy was used, but we have no idea which defendants and which cases those are without the help of the crime labs going through their cases and telling us the ones that they have, or at least have a record of.”
The creation of Arizona’s hair task force exemplifies how criminal justice efforts are most effective when diverse stakeholders work together to achieve the same goal. Collaborative efforts like this provide an opportunity to learn from past errors, improve practices moving forward and support stakeholders as they carry out their ethical duties to correct and notify.