In an attempt to reassess the validity of the nation’s crime labs, the Justice Department and the FBI have launched a sweeping review of thousands of criminal cases. The Justice Department will initially focus on 10,000 hair and fiber analyses, many of which are believed to have led to a wrongful conviction. According to the Washington Post, “the undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available.”
The review follows an April panel of the National Academy of Science that urged Congress to overhaul the current crime lab system and the methodological standards of forensic evidence. The Post also reported on the issue in April, finding that flawed forensic evidence has likely led to widespread wrongful convictions of innocent people.
Both reports found that forensic examinations such as hair and fiber analyses were “subjective and lacked grounding in solid research and that the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate.” The lack of standards for effective examinations and convictions has allowed forensic analysts to base their conclusions on very few matching characteristics. The Post reported that out of about 30 possible traits used to determine hair matches, analysts often based their conclusions on only 6 or 7 matching characteristics. In one case, an FBI scientist based his testimony — which landed a defendant 28 years in prison before being exonerated — on only three characteristics: “it was black, it was a human head hair, and it was from an African American.” A former Justice Department official said in support of the review that:
“These recent developments remind us of the profound questions about the validity of many forensic techniques that have been used over the course of many decades and underscore the need for continuing attention at every level to ensuring the scientific validity and accuracy of the forensic science that is used every day in our criminal justice system.”
The last time the FBI overhauled a standard forensic practice was in 2005, when it stopped using the chemical composition of bullets to draw conclusions on their manufacturers. While many details of how the newest review will be conducted remain unclear, it will include help from both the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project, a group that seeks to exonerate people based on DNA testing.