The FBI’s forensic unit gave incorrect and misleading testimony in nearly all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants for more than a two decade period before the year 2000. From the Washington Post article

“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, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.” 

So far, the review has identified cases involving 32 defendants who were sentenced to death, including 14 who have already been executed or who’ve died in prison. (An aside: here’s yet another thing that makes me strongly question whether the system has ever executed an innocent man, regardless to what former Governor Rick Perry said.) According to the Post article’s infographic table, the joint review has gone through roughly half of the identified cases. About 1,200 cases remain to be reviewed. That number includes 700 cases where the police or prosecutors have not responded to requests for trial transcripts or other information. (That’s nice.)

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project said, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster. We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn’t stopped much sooner.” 

Agreed. Two things are immediately apparent to me:

1) Criminal defense attorneys have been way to ready to accept DNA testing as some sort of irrefutable gospel. It should go without saying (but obviously it needs to be said) that defense attorneys have an obligation to get expert review of the government’s lab’s analysis in every case to make sure it’s legit. 

2) Any claim that the labs who perform this type of analysis are independent scientists who are above claims of bias is a complete joke. Whether it’s this fiasco or the Texas DPS crime lab where a scientist who worked on nearly 5,000 cases had falsified results – it’s clear that these scientists are agents of the prosecution and are susceptible to the same bias and motivation to “get the bad guy” as any police officer, prosecutor, or probation officer. Surely many perform good work according to a scientific method and stay truly independent (like many prosecutors who turn over exculpatory material or police officers who go wherever their investigation leads them rather than focusing on “the guy”) – but it’s foolhardy to assume that 100% of them are free of bias. 

So next time you hear about a DNA match and assume that case is a slam dunk, think again. Maybe the analyst was sloppy, maybe they’re fudging their numbers intentionally, or maybe their protocols aren’t followed and cross-contamination is an issue… Just like how eye witness testimony was once considered unassailable but is now routinely questioned – so should DNA and other “forensic evidence.” 

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