According to a report published by The Washington Post, the FBI have admitted that nearly every single examiner in an FBI forensic unit gave false testimony in trials in which they offered “forensic evidence”.
The flawed forensic science they used have seen many people wrongly convicted and put to their deaths an official review has found. In one case hair belonging to a dog was used as evidence by the team.
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What went wrong? The Post continues: “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.” The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project. Following revelations published in recent years, the two groups are helping the government with the country’s largest ever post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.
Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.
The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
This study was launched after the Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes, dating back at least to the 1970s. In 90 percent of the cases reviewed so far, forensic examiners evidently made statements beyond the bounds of proper science. There were no scientifically accepted standards for forensic testing, yet FBI experts routinely and almost unvaryingly testified, according to the Post, “to the near-certainty of ‘matches’ of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.”
NACDL executive director Norman Reimer said in an interview with Associations Now that the flaws in the system had been known for years now. “What we were finding was that the examiners … wouldn’t just simply say that there was a microscopic similarity [between the two hairs], but they would go beyond that and say it was a 100 percent match, essentially misleading the jury into concluding that the evidence had a certain value that it didn’t actually have,” Reimer said.
This problem doesn’t stop with the FBI labs or federal prosecutions. The review focuses on the first few hundred cases, involving FBI examiners, but the same mistakes and faulty testimony were likely presented in any state prosecutions that relied on the between 500 and 1,000 local or state examiners trained by the FBI. Some states will automatically conduct reviews. Others may not. Much of the evidence is now lost.
Systemic change, in other words, is being left to the discretion of the system itself.