The Justice Department and the FBI have are reviewing thousands of criminal cases searching for flawed forensic evidence, officials recently said. They will be examining cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available.
The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work may have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but never reviewed the evidence or notified defendants or their attorneys of cases they knew were troubled.
“The Department and the FBI are in the process of identifying historical cases for review where a microscopic hair examination conducted by the FBI was among the evidence in a case that resulted in a conviction,” spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in a statement. “We have dedicated considerable time and resources to addressing these issues, with the goal of reaching final determinations in the coming months.”
Chitre said the new review would include help from the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group for people seeking exoneration through DNA testing, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
In its April report, The Post identified two men convicted on the testimony of FBI hair analysts who wrongly placed them at crime scenes. Santae A. Tribble, now 51, was convicted of killing a taxi driver in 1978, and Kirk L. Odom, now 49, was convicted of a sexual assault in 1981. Since the Post report, Tribble’s conviction was vacated, and prosecutors moved to overturn Odom’s conviction and declare him innocent.
The National Academy of Sciences is urging the White House and Congress to remove crime labs from police and prosecutors’ control, or at least to strengthen the science and standards underpinning the nation’s forensic science system.
The last time the FBI abandoned a forensic practice was in 2005, when it ended efforts to trace bullets to a specific manufacturer’s batch through analyzing their chemical composition after its methodology was scientifically debunked. The bureau released files in an estimated 2,500 bullet-lead cases only after “60 Minutes” and The Post reported the problem in 2007.
The Post reported in April that hair and fiber analysis was subjective and lacked grounding in solid research and that the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate. But bureau managers kept their reviews limited to one agent, even as they learned that many examiners’ “matches” were often wrong and that numerous examiners overstated the significance of matches, using bogus statistics or exaggerated claims.
In past reviews, the department kept results secret and gave findings only to prosecutors, who then determined whether to turn them over to the defense.