The FBI seems to be more interested in securing convictions than finding the truth. An investigation into questions about the agency’s hair analysis commenced in 1996, but years of foot dragging by the FBI means the full truth has only come to light over the past couple of years. What’s detailed in a report compiled by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Innocence Project is an almost surreally callous drive for sucessful prosecutions that potentially put dozens of innocent people behind bars.
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.
Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far…
This isn’t to say that nearly every case reviewed will be overturned. For some, it’s too late. Of those reviewed, 28 pertain to prisoners with death sentences — of which nearly have already died… or been put to death. For others, their convictions may not have hinged on apparently questionable DNA evidence.
What’s uncovered here is just the beginning. There are nearly 1,200 more cases to review. For many of those, it will likely be several years (and several lawsuits) before the truth comes out. Of those 1,200, nearly 700 are being met with stonewalling by local law enforcement and prosecutors, who have refused to provide requested transcripts and other court materials.
Part of this widespread failure is undoubtedly due to the FBI’s desire to rack up convictions. (The same is true for those entities it worked with — local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.) But a larger portion of this can be chalked up to the FBI’s own desire to keep its “slam dunk” forensics analysis from being questioned by anyone inside or outside of its labs. For four decades (1972-2012), the FBI refused to provide any guidelines for the use of, not just hair DNA evidence, but almost any forensic evidence, in court.
The FBI is waiting to complete all reviews to assess causes but has acknowledged that hair examiners until 2012 lacked written standards defining scientifically appropriate and erroneous ways to explain results in court. The bureau expects this year to complete similar standards for testimony and lab reports for 19 forensic disciplines.
Judging from how analysts performed in court, the lack of guidance was apparently construed to mean “put people in jail,” rather than unbiased scientific analysis. This news follows on the heels a highly-critical report condemning the agency’s faith in “bite mark analysis,” a practice that is increasingly being perceived as junk science — foisted on law enforcement by self-described “experts” with no hard data to back up their findings. The courts, so far, have often indulged bite mark experts, despite a National Academy of Sciences’ report finding that bite mark analysis provides “no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others.”
These are people who have the power to effectively end someone’s life and they’ve been instrumental in ensuring that problems tracing back to the early 1970s — and first examined 25 years later — remained buried until it could no longer be ignored.