DNA analysis helps in criminal investigations, but before it was prevalent, the FBI had to visually analyze evidences, sometimes building cases based on the microscopic analysis of hair.
The method, however, is flawed. Now, a report reveals that erroneous forensic hair matches may have possibly caused the conviction of hundreds of innocent people.
The FBI and the Justice Department have finally acknowledged that, for over two decades before the year 2000, nearly every examiner in the microscopic hair comparison unit of the FBI had given flawed testimony in nearly all trials, where they gave evidence against criminal defendants.
The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which help the government in conducting the post-conviction review, claim that 26 of 28 examiners with FBI's hair analysis unit exaggerated forensic matches in a manner that could benefit the prosecutors in over 95 percent of the 268 trials that have so far been reviewed.
Of these cases, 32 had defendants receiving the death penalty. Fourteen of these were already executed or died in jail. The defendants and prosecutors in 46 states are also being notified since there may be grounds for appeals.
Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld said that there could be hundreds of appeals nationwide. Four defendants have so far been exonerated because of overstated testimonies.
Not all of the cases, though, relied heavily on the flawed hair match analysis, and this will likely make it more difficult for some to make an appeal for their cases.
The review also found that FBI experts testified to the near certainty of matches and they backed their claims by citing misleading or incomplete statistics from their case work.
Although the FBI did not explain why examiners misidentified matches, it admitted that until 2012, hair examiners did not have written standards to correctly explain results in court.
"The question is why this was permitted to continue," said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. "And that's a question the FBI has to answer after an investigation, a systemic analysis of the root causes. Why did it happen?"
Photo: Sheila Sund | Flickr