The FBI’s flawed forensics history

The Observer editorial board

In a chilling admission last week, the FBI and Justice Department acknowledged that examiners in an elite FBI microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in more than 95 percent of trials over approximately two decades before 2000.

What’s more chilling is what we don’t yet know about additional cases across the country, including in North Carolina.

The Washington Post reports that more than 200 trials have been examined thus far in which the elite forensic unit overstated the link between hair found at a crime scene and a defendant’s hair. In cases where such testimony was given, 32 defendants were sentenced to death, and 14 were executed or have died in prison. At least 1,200 cases are still awaiting examination.

Tucked away at the bottom of the Post’s report is another disturbing note: These same FBI examiners taught 500 to 1,000 state and local crime analysts to give microscopic hair comparison testimony in the same ways. That could affect more cases in North Carolina and throughout the United States.

North Carolina, at least, is already taking steps to examine the impact. The state is one of just a few across the country that already has investigated cases involving the FBI forensics unit. Thus far, there are just three FBI cases involving North Carolina defendants, probably because the State Bureau of Investigation did its own hair analysis in state cases.

“Beginning in 2013 when these issues with the FBI lab came to light, the North Carolina State Crime Lab reviewed all relevant cases, and legal counsel for the State Crime Lab also worked with the NC Center on Actual Innocence to provide information on the cases for its review,” Noelle Talley, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice, told the editorial board Monday.

Now, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence is reviewing 4,200 hair examinations conducted prior to the advent of DNA testing to determine if there was misleading testimony in trials. The Center’s executive director, Chris Mumma, told the editorial board Monday that the probe, which has the blessing of the SBI, will include any cases involving SBI examiners trained in testimony by the FBI.

Mumma says the Center has narrowed its probe to 900 state cases in which someone was convicted and hair testimony was given. The Center will look at those cases to see if the testimony was misleading, and what role it played in the eventual conviction.

The FBI admission is another reminder of how the courts have long been vulnerable to bad science – or bad prosecutors. Last summer, a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General revealed that flawed forensic evidence and improper testimony by lab examiners helped convict up to 64 murder suspects and put them on death now.

Mumma says that in some pre-2000 cases, flawed testimony on hair may have stemmed from examiners being misinformed about the limits of science then. (DNA testing is used today.) Still, transparency is critical now. In North Carolina, the SBI has a troubled history – a 2010 audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper found more than 200 cases in which the SBI withheld or distorted evidence.

Once again, it’s important to aggressively pursue answers. For the public, and especially for the innocent, there should be no statute of limitations on getting justice right.

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