Civil Liberties

Huge Scandal at FBI: Dubious Forensic Evidence Used in Convictions of Hundreds, Possibly Thousands of People

Many of them on death row.


The FBI story has some holes in it.
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As regular Reason readers know, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been reviewing thousands of cases where it may have used dubious forensic evidence to get a conviction. Today's Washington Post fills us in on how that's been going:

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August. Case reviews resumed this month at the order of the Justice Department, the officials said.


The issue is the use of hair found at a crime scene to prove a defendant had been present. According to the Post, "FBI policy has stated since at least the 1970s that a hair association cannot be used as positive identification, like fingerprints," yet "agents regularly testified to the near-certainty of matches" in the 1980s and '90s. A spokesman for the Justice Department told that paper that the bureau's claims regularly "exceeded the limits of science."

In many of these cases, of course, there is other evidence of the defendants' guilt. But that just means it's all the more important to have as speedy a review as possible. Instead, the government has dragged its feet. According to the Post, officials have "had enough information to review all hair unit cases" since 1999, but it failed to start the process until recently.

At this point the authorities have made their way through only about 10 percent of the 2,600 convictions under review. It has made more progress on the subset where the convict faces the death penalty, but even then around a third of the 45 cases have not been reexamined.

To read the rest of the Post's report, go here. For more on the problem of death-row errors, go here.