In the Opinion Pages of today’s
New York Times
, the editorial board released a piece entitled “Junk Science at the F.B.I.” The piece comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that the bureau’s examiners gave flawed hair analysis testimony in 96% of the criminal trials that have been reviewed so far as part of a review of nearly 3,000 cases.
While the op-ed condemns the bureau’s actions, it notes that flawed hair analysis is not the only forensic practice to have sent innocent people to prison. Data by the Innocence Project shows that of the 329 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States, almost half of them were wrongfully convicted—at least in part—by faulty forensics; one quarter of the 329 cases involved erroneous testimony around pattern and impression evidence, which includes hair analysis.
The editorial board writes:
Law enforcement agencies have long known of the dubious value of hair-sample analysis. A
by the National Research Council found “no scientific support” and “no uniform standards” for the method’s use in positively identifying a suspect. At best, hair-sample analysis can rule out a suspect, or identify a wide class of people with similar characteristics.
“While the F.B.I. is finally treating this fiasco with the seriousness it deserves, that offers little comfort to the men and women who have spent decades behind bars based on junk science.”
Yet until DNA testing became commonplace in the late 1990s, forensic analysts testified confidently to the near-certainty of matches between hair found at crime scenes and samples taken from defendants. The F.B.I. did not even have written standards on how analysts should testify about their findings until 2012.
If the early results of the new review are any indication, there are many more wrongful convictions waiting to be discovered. In the District of Columbia alone, three of the seven men whose convictions involved erroneous hair-sample testimony have already been exonerated. That should be no surprise, since it is hard to imagine that juries would discount the testimony of a F.B.I. forensics expert with years of experience.
The difficulty now is in identifying and addressing the remaining cases quickly and thoroughly. Most of the convictions are decades old; witnesses, memories, and even evidence may be long gone.
And courts have only
made the problem worse
by purporting to be scientifically literate, and allowing in all kinds of evidence that would not make it within shouting distance of a peer-reviewed journal. Of the 329 exonerations based on DNA testing since 1989, more than one-quarter involved convictions based on “pattern” evidence — like hair samples, ballistics, tire tracks, and bite marks — testified to by so-called experts.
While the F.B.I. is finally treating this fiasco with the seriousness it deserves, that offers little comfort to the men and women who have spent decades behind bars based on junk science.