Crime & Courts

FBI controversy prompts review of Charlotte man’s conviction

Retired N.C. Chief Justice Sarah Parker
Retired N.C. Chief Justice Sarah Parker HO

Prosecutors said they are reviewing a man’s conviction in a 26-year-old Charlotte rape case, after the Washington Post reported that flawed testimony by an elite FBI forensic unit affected at least 2,500 cases nationwide.

The Justice Department and FBI formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in the unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000, the Post reported.

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.

Those groups are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

One of the cases involves Timothy Scott Bridges, who is serving life for the rape of an 83-year-old disabled woman in her Charlotte home in May 1989, according to the Post.

The woman lived between The Plaza and North Davidson Street, the Observer reported at the time. She was hospitalized for three months and later lived in a nursing home.

The woman, who died in 1990 of unrelated causes, gave varying descriptions of her attacker and never identified Bridges, according to the Post.

A Charlotte forensic expert, among hundreds trained by the FBI before 2000, matched two hairs at the crime scene to Bridges, then 22, according to court papers.

The expert asserted there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance that they might have come from someone else, testimony the FBI review states “exceeds the limits of the science,” according to the Post.

There is no accepted research on how often hair from different people may appear the same. The FBI now uses DNA testing in combination with hair examination.

“If offered today, the hair evidence would be inadmissible, and without the hair evidence there was insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Bridges,” wrote his attorney, Lauren Miller, with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.

A spokeswoman told the Post that the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office has been communicating with Bridges’ defense team and that “the matter is under review.”

In 1992, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Bridges’ conviction and life sentence, the Observer reported at the time.

Judges Jack Cozort and Sarah Parker agreed that a statistician should not have been allowed to testify that there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance that a hair found at the scene came from someone other than Bridges. They ruled the mistake wasn’t serious enough to call for a new trial.

The cases under review nationally also include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death, the Post reported. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison.

The FBI errors alone don’t mean there was not other evidence of the defendants’, the paper said. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District of Columbia are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals . Four defendants were previously exonerated.

Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.

Marusak: 704-358-5067;

Twitter: @jmarusak

Related stories from Charlotte Observer