In light of the announcement over the weekend that Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) examiners gave flawed testimony about hair evidence in 96% of the criminal trials that have been reviewed so far in a review of nearly 3,000 cases and counting, Co-Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and Innocence Project Board Member Eric Lander, in an op-ed for the
New York Times
on Tuesday, called for law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys to insist upon high-quality forensics to avoid wrongful convictions and ensure public safety.
Lander recalled a case for which he provided testimony as an expert witness, which prompted the National Academy of Sciences and the FBI to establish new standards for DNA fingerprinting. Among the defense team for that case were Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who soon went on to found the Innocence Project.
By 2012, three men who were convicted based on hair evidence had been exonerated after serving approximately 30 years each. DNA testing proved that none of the hair samples matched the defendant in these cases, and in the case of Santae Tribble, one sample was found to be from a dog.
The Department of Justice then reached an agreement with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to launch a historic review of FBI testimony on hair analysis in over 2,500 cases spanning from 1985 to 1999. Results of the first 268 cases examined were reported Sunday in the
, according to Lander’s op-ed. Results reveal that the testimony in 96 percent of the total cases was fundamentally flawed. Among the defendants in those cases, 33 were sentenced to death. Nine have already been executed.
In 2013 the Department of Justice appointed a national commission on the issue.
“The commission, most of whose members are tied to law enforcement or involved in current forensic practice, now needs to listen to its independent panelists and get down to making rigorous recommendations,” Lander wrote.
Lander notes that the problem lies not just with hair analysis. Innocent people have been convicted via improper use of many types of forensic evidence, such as ballistic and bite-mark evidence. There must be rigorous standards and oversight for the use of expert testimony on these types of evidence, Lander writes. He says experts should be required to show three things when they testify: “a public database of patterns from many representative samples; precise and objective criteria for declaring matches; and peer-reviewed published studies that validate the methods.”
Police, prosecutors and defense attorneys should be united in their desire to uphold reliable forensic practices, Lander writes, in order to keep innocent people out of prison and dangerous offenders off the streets.
Read Lander’s op-ed