July 23rd, 2013
The FBI, in partnership with the Innocence Project and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), has agreed to review over 2,000 criminal cases in which the microscopic analysis of hair samples may have been a deciding factor in a conviction. This is the next step in an ongoing investigation of over 20,000 cases from between 1985 and 2000 that were referred to the hair microscopy unit of the FBI labs. The date range was chosen in order to examine cases with computerized records and where DNA testing was unlikely to have already been completed. By 2000, DNA testing was routinely used instead or in conjunction with hair microscopy to provide more definitive results. Cases in this review involve individuals on death row who currently have set execution dates, as well as people who have already died in prison.
Hair microscopy is simply a qualitative analysis by forensic experts of multiple known and unknown hair samples at a very high magnification (40x-400x) under a microscope. According to Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokesperson for the FBI, they maintain that hair microscopy is “…a valid forensic technique and one that is still conducted at the lab,” but their willingness to undergo this unprecedented review process, as well as the history of wrongful convictions based on hair analysis, shows that the value of these types of observations may have been overstated in many cases. The review has already identified as many as 27 people on death row who were falsely implicated based on the exaggerated veracity of hair microscopy during trial.
While this review is a great victory for the cause of eliminating wrongful conviction in our justice system, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The cases under review by the FBI are limited to federal cases, but 95% of violent crimes are handled by state and local authorities and up to 1,000 state and local investigators have been trained by FBI investigators to apply the same standards. Undaunted by the scale of the problem, the co-director of the Innocence project, Peter Neufeld, is optimistic about the implications of the FBI’s cooperation in this review, saying that it “…signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles.” Results from the review are expected by the end of the summer.