Kirk Odom’s DNA exoneration on July 13, 2012, helped expose problems with FBI forensic hair analysis, which contributed to Odom’s wrongful conviction. He spent over 22 years in prison and another nine on parole as a registered sex offender.
On February 24, 1981, a 27-year-old white woman was attacked in her Capitol Hill apartment by a stranger armed with a gun. She viewed him briefly in the dim light of streetlamps coming in through the windows before she was gagged, bound and blindfolded. Her assailant sodomized and raped her before rummaging through her belongings and stealing hundreds of dollars in traveler’s checks.
The Investigation and Identification
The victim helped police construct a composite of her attacker and viewed hundreds of mugshots—which did not include Odom—but made no identification. About five weeks later, an officer was talking to 18-year-old Odom about an unrelated matter and thought he resembled the sketch. He passed the information on to the detective investigating the case who obtained a two-year-old photo of Odom and showed it to the victim in a photo array. The victim tentatively identified Odom in the array but said that she would have to see him in person to be sure. Most of the photos in the array were of older men with facial hair, whereas Odom was young and clean shaven, more similar to the description of the perpetrator.
Odom participated in a live lineup the following month. He was placed in the center position and given a box to stand on so that he would appear to be the same height as the other lineup members, who were police officers. The victim positively identified Odom as the perpetrator.
At trial, an FBI Special Agent testified that a hair found on the victim’s nightgown was microscopically similar to Odom’s hair “meaning that the samples were indistinguishable.” He went on to say that he found hair samples to be indistinguishable only “eight or 10 times in the past 10 years, while performing thousands of analyses.” Hair microscopy, an inexact science, cannot yield a “match.” The analyst’s findings were exaggerated.
Odom and his mother both testified that he was at home when the crime occurred. The day had been a memorable one for the family since Odom’s sister had just come home from the hospital with her new baby.
After deliberating only a few hours, the jury convicted Odom.
Odom was released on parole in March 2003 and made to register as a sex offender. In December 2009, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) won the exoneration of Donald Gates who served 28 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. Gates had been convicted in part based on unreliable FBI microscopic hair analysis. Odom’s PDS trial attorney remembered the use of similar evidence in Odom’s case and his claim of innocence. In February 2011, Sandra Levick, Chief of PDS’s Special Litigation Division, who had also represented Gates, filed a motion for DNA testing under the D.C. Innocence Protection Act. In response, the government located stained bedsheets, a robe and the microscopically examined hair from the crime scene. DNA-STR testing on semen from a pillowcase and robe, as well as mitochondrial testing of the hair, all excluded Odom and linked to a convicted sex offender.
Public defender Sandra Levick filed a motion to vacate Odom’s convictions and dismiss the indictment with prejudice on the grounds of actual innocence in March 2012. The United States joined the motion in July 2012. A District of Columbia Superior Court Judge officially exonerated Odom on July 13, 2012. That same day, Odom’s 50th birthday, the judge signed a certificate of actual innocence. Eventually, the real perpetrator was identified through DNA testing. A comparison of mug shots contemporary to the crime revealed that Mr. Odom did not resemble the real perpetrator.
Earlier that same month, the Justice Department and the FBI announced a joint effort to review convictions involving FBI analysis of hair evidence. The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will assist with the case review.