FBI to Re-Examine Thousands of Cases in Which Hair Samples Were Used


The FBI admits that, hey, thanks to the possible overreliance on the meaning of hair analysis, it may have been wrong in 2,000 or so cases–some involving the death penalty.

As reported last week by Michael Doyle at McClatchy:

The FBI will review thousands of old cases, including some involving the death penalty, in which hair samples helped secure convictions, under an ambitious plan made public Thursday.

Chapendra / Foter / CC BY-NC

More than 2,000 cases the FBI processed from 1985 to 2000 will be re-examined, including some in which execution dates have been set and others in which the defendants already have died in prison. In a key concession, Justice Department officials will waive usual deadlines and procedural hurdles that often block inmates from challenging their convictions….

The study will focus on whether analysts exaggerated the significance of their hair analyses or reported them inaccurately. Defendants will be notified and free DNA testing offered if errors in lab work or testimony are detected.

"The government's willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors in an extraordinarily large number of cases is truly unprecedented," declared Peter Neufeld, a co-director of the Innocence Project….

[FBI Special Agent Ann] Todd called microscopic hair analysis "a valid forensic technique and one that is still conducted at the lab" in conjunction with DNA testing. But in some cases, defense attorneys say, lab analysts have overstated the significance of their findings.

And we already have reason to believe it can be a big problem:

In 1981, for instance, an 18-year-old Washington resident named Kirk Odom was convicted of rape and sodomy. At his trial, an FBI analyst testified that Odom's hair samples and samples taken from the crime scene "were indistinguishable" and that this was very rare. Odom was convicted and served about 22 years in prison. In 2011, he was exonerated by DNA testing that wasn't available at the time of his original trial…

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…

A spokesman for the Innocence Project is:

hopeful that state crime labs will also recognize their duty" to confirm the accuracy of past lab tests, although the agreement announced Thursday covers only testimony and reports from FBI lab analysts.

Radley Balko reported extensively for Reason on some very egregious cases of bad science in the service of winning prosecutions, out of Mississippi. All Americans should read his new book Rise of the Warrior Cop.

NEXT: Indian Engineers Develop Anti-Rape Underwear

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. It has always been my impression that things like hair and fiber matching were just junk science made up by a bunch of police hacks with associates degrees and lab coats. The idea that you could match fibers from one carpet to another or hair from one person to another always seemed preposterous on its face. But God knows how many people have been sent to prison based on such evidence because juries love a guy in a lab coat more than any other witness. Shame on the judges who let this crap ever get before a jury.

    1. Hello forensic “science”.

    2. Remember the whole “bite mark” matching bullshit? This is more of the same. Can’t wait till they start looking real close at the solidity (or lack thereof) of DNA matching.

    3. + bite pattern

  2. “WHOA! Do over! Our bad!” – FBI

    Part of me thought, “well, at least they’ve admitted there might be a problem and are looking into it….”

    I haz a sad for thinking like that…

    1. It is going to get to a point where jurors are going to stop trusting any of these labs and they won’t be able to convict guilty people anymore. Won’t that be great.

      1. Right now, the CSI effect is in full swing and jurors LOVE this kind of shit and give it way too much credibility. I see it in the street as well as at trials

        Thank god for DNA, though. It really does help exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty, and it’s accurate, as opposed to (god forbid) “bite mark evidence”, hair analysis and a lot of other forms of physical evidence.

        1. They love it because they don’t know any better. But at some point if these scandals continue, they will know better. And yes, DNA is scientifically valid, if the test is done properly and the samples actually some from where you say they did. Garbage in garbage out you know.

          1. True, even if DNA is good, there are still plenty of scandals regarding labs that are a little too friendly with the local prosecutors.

          2. We’ve had some really great convictions recently because of DNA. We caught some guys who stole 1.6 MILLION dollars worth of copper based off of DNA. Here in WA, DNA samples are taken on all felony arrests, so the database is getting pretty large by now.

            And we’ve been able to clear suspects with DNA too, on some cases where other evidence incriminated them (witnesses lie or are mistaken, coincidences happen, etc.)

            Imo, DNA analysis is the most important “invention” for criminal justice since fingerprints.

            WA state uses the Frye standard. It’s reasonably tough to get physical evidence in, as it should be.

            I’ve never had a problem, for example, in my DUI’s in getting nystagmus admitted, but I’ve gone through some pretty extensive voir dire.

            I *love* testifying in court. It’s about my favorite part of the job. Most officers hate it.

            1. It is a great tool, provided it is not misused. Remember, it only works in court because people trust the labs. Every time there is a scandal like the ones that happened in Mississippi or Oklahoma, juries will put less and less stock in it. That is why those involved in these lab scandals have to be ruthlessly prosecuted. Not just fired but sent to jail. Their misconduct puts the entire system in jeopardy.

              1. I totally agree. Imo, people who lie to get convictions for crime X deserve the same punishment as they would get for crime x. Iow, false report of rape should get the same punishment as they would get FOR a rape. Intentional false misrepresentation of evidence on crime X should get the same penalty as crime X. I’m talking INTENTIONAL of course.

        2. How solid is DNA matching? Have any comprehensive studies been done by someone outside the criminal justice industry?

          1. “How solid is DNA matching? Have any comprehensive studies been done by someone outside the criminal justice industry?”
            There was a comprehensive study conducted a while ago.

  3. In my just in case I had to murder someone scenario. I collect hair and other types of evidence from various places like a salon dumpster or pubic bus beforehand and than distribute it all over the crime scene along with all sorts or gross matter that will distract the examiner from their job.

    1. Where the hell do you live that they have pubic buses?!?

      1. Beaverlick, KY which is just down the road from Big Bone Lick State Park.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.