Some Forensic Science Found to be Less Than Scientific

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A Test of Bad Forensic Science

Before the advent of DNA testing, U.S. law enforcement relied on a number of different bad forensic science techniques to connect people to crimes. Such as, handwriting samples, microscopic hair analysis, and even bite marks. As may be expected, some of these sciences are not always completely accurate.

Recently, the FBI teamed with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and the Innocence Project. The teams released an announcement that they concurrently and separately reviewed microscopic hair analysis cases. The result of these cases is disconcerting. In fact, it’s downright alarming.

A Difference of Opinion

According to the FBI’s press release:

“FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions’ case.”

As Slate Magazine so aptly puts it: “The FBI faked an entire field of forensic science.” The result is, according to University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett, a “mass disaster.

The “faked,” or bad forensic science involved microscopic examinations of hair found at the scene of a crime, as well as the hair of a suspect. In fact, this was a common practice of law enforcement for nearly thirty years. That is, until 2000, when the FBI started examining full DNA rather than just the hair itself. The DNA analysis works much better.

In reality, the microscopic hair examination technique barely worked at all, if ever. Even the Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community called the practice “highly unreliable.” Nonetheless, FBI forensic experts commonly testified in trial that the technique not only worked, but was enough to prove a suspect’s guilt.

Too Many Defendants

According to the FBI’s own report, too many scientists miscalculated the results. Twenty-six out of twenty-eight forensic scientists in the microscopic hair comparison unit “overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors.”

After examining hair found at a crime scene, the scientists compare it to a suspect’s hair in a lab. Upon finding similarities between the two, the forensic scientists often claimed the hairs matched. Unfortunately, these findings made their way to their expert witness” testimony during trial.

This similarity/match testimony happened at a staggering rate. Of the cases that the FBI reviewed to date, 90% of the cases apply. This affected 284 defendants at their trials. This is poor, bad forensic science.

Many of the convicted defendants privy to the unfortunate microscopic hair analysis are serving jail time for felony offenses. For some, the impact was irreversible. According to the FBI’s press release,

“defendants in at least 35 of these cases received the death penalty and errors were identified in 33 of those cases… Nine of these defendants have already been executed.”

The FBI is taking steps to right their wrong. They are notifying affected defendants and allowing federal defendants to make appeals. Normally, this type of practice is not allowed in federal court. However, most of the defendants in question received state court convictions. It is now up to the states to allow these cases to reexamine these cases.

The Kavinoky Law Firm is closely monitoring the situation in California. If you believe bad forensic science practices impacted your freedom, speak with a criminal defense attorney at 1.800.NO.CUFFS. all 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

John Devendorf
John Devendorf
John Devendorf is a California barred attorney and graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law. He writes on a range of legal topics including criminal law, immigration, and legal marketing. While he is not a member of The Kavinoky Law Firm, we share his legal insights on topics important to our clients.