After an in-depth investigation into criminal cases in which the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence, the agency has concluded that 26 out of 28 FBI agent/analysts provided either testimony with erroneous statements or submitted laboratory reports with erroneous statements. The news was released today in a joint press release with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
In 2013, the DOJ and the FBI, in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the NACDL, announced that they would conduct a comprehensive review of cases in which FBI Laboratory reports and testimony included statements that were scientifically invalid. The agencies agreed to undertake the review after three men who had served lengthy prison sentences were exonerated by DNA testing in cases in which three different FBI hair examiners provided testimony which exceeded the limits of science and contributed to their wrongful convictions.
Focused on cases worked prior to 2000, when mitochondrial DNA testing on hair became routine at the FBI, the government identified nearly 3,000 cases in which FBI examiners may have submitted reports or testified in trials using microscopic hair analysis. The review encompasses cases where FBI microscopic hair comparison was used to link a defendant to a crime and covers cases in both federal and state court systems.
As of April 14, 2015, the FBI had reviewed over 500 of those cases. The majority of these cases were trials and the transcript of examiner testimony was reviewed. Some of these cases ended in guilty pleas, limiting the review to the original lab report. Out of the 268 cases where examiners provided testimony used to inculpate a defendant at trial, erroneous statements were made in 257 of them—or 96% of the cases.
Defendants in at least 35 of these cases received the death penalty and errors were identified in 33 (94%) of those cases. Nine of these defendants have already been executed and five died of other causes while on death row. The states with capital cases included Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. It should be noted that this is an ongoing process and that the numbers referenced above will change.
Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Innocence Project Peter Neufeld said about the review: “These findings confirm that FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions’ case.” Neufeld said in a
article released over the weekend about the FBI hair review, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.” While Neufeld commended the FBI and DOJ for bringing these errors to light and notifying many of the people adversely affected, he called for a rigorous review to determine how this started almost four decades ago and why it took so long to come to light.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said to the
, “These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.” A former prosecutor, Blumenthal called on the federal agencies involved to notify each defendant in the thousands of cases being reviewed.
The review has shown that FBI Examiners testified in cases in 41 states. In light of these findings, the DOJ and FBI have committed to working with the Innocence Project and NACDL to take the following steps:
- Conduct an independent investigation of the FBI Laboratory protocols, practices and procedures to determine how this occurred and why it was allowed to continue for so long.
- Continue aggressive measures and review the process to determine whether additional steps could be taken to secure the transcripts and/or lab reports and review the hundreds of remaining cases that may contain invalid scientific statements.
- Strongly encourage the states again to conduct their own independent reviews where its examiners were trained by the FBI.
The NACDL said that it will work to ensure that all individuals who were defendants in affected cases will have access to a volunteer lawyer to review this new evidence, advise them on how it may impact their conviction, and challenge convictions based on the invalid evidence in appropriate cases.
Read “Righting the Wrong: The FBI Investigates Cases of Hair Analysis Misconduct,” from the
Innocence Project in Print