DOJ/FBI Admit They May Have Abused Hair Analysis To Convict Hundreds To Thousands Of Innocent People

Mike Masnick — Techdirt July 22, 2013

I’ve mentioned in the past how my eyes were opened as to how the Justice Department prosecutes various criminal cases after seeing a powerful documentary called Better This World, which detailed (in part) the prosecution against two teens for supposedly planning to plant some bombs at a political convention. While the two teens are hardly innocent, the ridiculous tactics pulled by the US Attorneys’ office and the FBI in pressuring them into a plea bargain made it clear that for the DOJ, it’s never about justice, but about winning. And that can be a bit dangerous when you’re the guys with the most guns and you get to make up many of the rules as you go along.

So while this following bit of news is horrifying, it’s not that surprising: late last week, it was revealed that the DOJ/FBI have more or less admitted that they may have abused microscopic hair analysis in over 2,000 cases, leading to many convictions and a few people already put to death. Apparently over 120 convictions, including 27 death penalty convictions are now seen as suspect due to the questionable analysis — with more likely on the way.

The main issue was that the DOJ more or less lied about what hair analysis meant, and how accurate it is (it’s not that accurate). Also, when the DOJ realized this rather serious issue likely led to many false convictions, it started telling prosecutors only, but not defense attorneys.

The FBI began reviewing a few hundred cases, but notified only prosecutors of flaws, with the Department of Justice claiming they were not required to inform defendants or their lawyers. In more than half of the 250 cases in which errors were initially identified, prosecutors never contacted defendants to inform them of the potentially exonerating evidence. The DOJ since expanded its review to involve thousands of older cases from the 1980s and 1990s.

There’s been plenty of talk lately about DNA evidence exonerating falsely convicted persons, and according to the Innocence Project, a large number of those false convictions were due to bogus hair analysis by the DOJ:

Of 310 individuals exonerated through DNA evidence, according to an Innocence Project database, 72 were convicted in part because of microscopic hair evidence.

Some died before they could be exonerated.

Basically, the key issue seems to be that hair is not a unique match — that is, it’s not like DNA or a fingerprint or something. It can suggest some information about the type of person, but that’s about it. Yet, the DOJ regularly used it in cases to suggest that it was a “perfect match” implying that hair analysis was no different than, say, a fingerprint.

While the DOJ has now agreed to review thousands of cases, including informing defendants of the possible flaws, it will also “waive deadlines and procedural hurdles that typically make it difficult to challenge convictions.” Finally, the FBI has agreed ” to provide DNA testing to every defendant whose case involves evidence deemed flawed by the FBI.” That’s a pretty big deal, showing that at least someone in the DOJ and the FBI realized just how absolutely massive a screwup this has been for decades.

While the FBI is trying to downplay the significance of this, their actions suggest they realize how spectacularly they screwed up:

“There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed ‘flawed’ forensic techniques,” FBI Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said in an email. “The purpose of the review is to determine if FBI Laboratory examiner testimony and reports properly reflect the bounds of the underlying science.”

Riiiiight. You don’t agree to DNA tests for so many people if you’re just confirming that the FBI didn’t exaggerate here or there. This revelation is quite the black eye for the DOJ and shows, yet again, how a focus on “winning” over actual justice distorts the incentives.

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