US agen­cies pledge re­view af­ter flawed anal­y­sis


The Jus­tice Depart­ment and FBI on Mon­day pledged an in­de­pen­dent re­view of FBI lab­o­ra­tory pro­to­cols and pro­ce­dures fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of flawed foren­sics tes­ti­mony in hun­dreds of older crim­i­nal cases.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion will look at how the sci­en­tific prob­lem oc­curred and “why it was al­lowed to con­tinue for so long,” the Jus­tice Depart­ment said. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials also said they would move for­ward with re­view­ing hun­dreds of ad­di­tional cases in which sci­en­tif­i­cally in­valid tes­ti­mony con­cern­ing mi­cro­scopic hair anal­y­sis may have been given, and would en­cour­age states whose ex­am­in­ers were trained by the FBI to con­duct their own re­views.

The steps, out­lined in a joint state­ment with the In­no­cence Project and the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Crim­i­nal De­fense Lawyers, fol­low rev­e­la­tions of flawed tes­ti­mony by spe­cial­ized FBI ex­am­in­ers in crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions dat­ing back decades. Er­rors in hair anal­y­sis have been found in most cases that have been ex­am­ined so far dur­ing an on­go­ing re­view, of­fi­cials said.

The FBI and the Jus­tice Depart­ment agreed to re­view crim­i­nal cases where mi­cro­scopic hair anal­y­sis helped connect a de­fen­dant to a crime fol­low­ing the ex­on­er­a­tion of three men in which the ev­i­dence was used. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion cov­ers cases prior to 2000, when more ac­cu­rate DNA anal­y­sis of hair be­came rou­tine for the FBI.

Of the 268 tri­als that were re­viewed as of last month in which hair ev­i­dence was used against a de­fen­dant, more than 95 per­cent con­tained flawed tes­ti­mony by spe­cial­ized ex­am­in­ers. In ad­di­tion, 26 of 28 FBI spe­cial­ists pro­vided flawed state­ments at trial or pro­duced lab re­ports with er­rors, the FBI said.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment and FBI are “com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing the ac­cu­racy of fu­ture hair anal­y­sis tes­ti­mony, as well as the ap­pli­ca­tion of all dis­ci­plines of foren­sic science,” Amy Hess, ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant direc­tor of the FBI’s science and tech­nol­ogy branch, said in a state­ment. “The Depart­ment and FBI have de­voted con­sid­er­able re­sources to this ef­fort and will con­tinue to do so un­til all of the iden­ti­fied hair cases are ad­dressed.”

The er­rors in tes­ti­mony do not nec­es­sar­ily es­tab­lish a de­fen­dant’s in­no­cence, but the legal groups say they’re work­ing with the Jus­tice Depart­ment to make sure de­fen­dants in af­fected cases have an av­enue to chal­lenge con­vic­tions. The Jus­tice Depart­ment has also said it won’t raise pro­ce­dural ob­jec­tions in fed­eral cases in which de­fen­dants seek a new trial.

The ma­jor­ity of af­fected cases are state pros­e­cu­tions. The FBI has trained hun­dreds of state hair ex­am­in­ers in an­nual train­ing cour­ses.

Peter Neufeld, co-direc­tor of the In­no­cence Project, said the FBI mi­cro­scopic hair an­a­lysts had “com­mit­ted wide­spread, sys­tem­atic er­ror” that had the ef­fect of strength­en­ing the cases of pros­e­cu­tors. Though he praised the Jus­tice Depart­ment for try­ing to fix the prob­lem, he also said in the state­ment that “this epic mis­car­riage of jus­tice calls for a rig­or­ous re­view to de­ter­mine how this started al­most four decades ago and why it took so long to come to light.”

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