WASHINGTON – The Justice Department and FBI on Monday pledged an independent review of FBI laboratory protocols and procedures following the discovery of flawed forensics testimony in hundreds of older criminal cases.
The investigation will look at how the scientific problem occurred and “why it was allowed to continue for so long,” the Justice Department said. Law enforcement officials also said they would move forward with reviewing hundreds of additional cases in which scientifically invalid testimony concerning microscopic hair analysis may have been given, and would encourage states whose examiners were trained by the FBI to conduct their own reviews.
The steps, outlined in a joint statement with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers, follow revelations of flawed testimony by specialized FBI examiners in criminal prosecutions dating back decades. Errors in hair analysis have been found in most cases that have been examined so far during an ongoing review, officials said.
The FBI and the Justice Department agreed to review criminal cases where microscopic hair analysis helped connect a defendant to a crime following the exoneration of three men in which the evidence was used. The investigation covers cases prior to 2000, when more accurate DNA analysis of hair became routine for the FBI.
Of the 268 trials that were reviewed as of last month in which hair evidence was used against a defendant, more than 95 per cent contained flawed testimony by specialized examiners. In addition, 26 of 28 FBI specialists provided flawed statements at trial or produced lab reports with errors, the FBI said.
The Justice Department and FBI are “committed to ensuring the accuracy of future hair analysis testimony, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science,” Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the FBI’s science and technology branch, said in a statement. “The Department and FBI have devoted considerable resources to this effort and will continue to do so until all of the identified hair cases are addressed.”
The errors in testimony do not necessarily establish a defendant’s innocence, but the legal groups say they’re working with the Justice Department to make sure defendants in affected cases have an avenue to challenge convictions. The Justice Department has also said it won’t raise procedural objections in federal cases in which defendants seek a new trial.
The majority of affected cases are state prosecutions. The FBI has trained hundreds of state hair examiners in annual training courses.
Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said the FBI microscopic hair analysts had “committed widespread, systematic error” that had the effect of strengthening the cases of prosecutors. Though he praised the Justice Department for trying to fix the problem, he also said in the statement that “this epic miscarriage of justice calls for a rigorous review to determine how this started almost four decades ago and why it took so long to come to light.”