The use of scientific methods to solve crimes has gripped the public imagination at least since the first Sherlock Holmes stories were published more than a century ago. Their continued fascination explains the success of the several long-running television series on forensic crime investigations.
But the idealized picture painted by these stories is shattered by the repeated assertion over the past 20 years of false evidence produced by crime labs across the country, most shockingly at the FBI’s state-of-the-art Crime Lab.
The problem has been repeatedly studied, with the National Science Foundation and the American Bar Association both making recommendations reflected in proposed legislation. But the needed reforms have gone nowhere.
It is time this changed, and the needed spur may be at hand.
Last week the Washington Post reported the current findings of an audit of the FBI Crime Lab’s hair analysis division being carried out since 2012 by the FBI and the Justice Department with the aid of two defendants’ rights organizations, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project.
The Post said Justice and the FBI agree that 26 of 28 examiners in the microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants from the late 1970s to 2000. Their testimony favored prosecutors in 257 of the 268 trials reviewed so far. The cases included 32 defendants sentenced to death, of whom 14 have been executed or died in prison. (It should be emphasized that the evidence on which they were convicted did not necessarily depend on the faulty hair analysis.)
The data come from the two defendants’ rights organizations who exercised an agreed right to disclose the findings of the audit after the review of the first 200 cases was completed.
The FBI, however, did not want these findings to come out. A year into the audit it suspended the review for nearly a year because it found the results troubling and wanted to change the scientific standards being used, the Washington Post reported in 2014. The Justice Department ordered it to resume the audit.
The reported bias in hair analysis follows earlier complaints about the FBI laboratory’s handling of explosives evidence, comparative bullet-lead analysis and DNA, according to the American Bar Association.
And it adds to reports of state-run crime-lab flaws in North Carolina, California, Virginia, Illinois, Maryland, West Virginia and Mississippi; city crime labs in Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Washington and San Francisco; and other jurisdictions. Literally tens of thousands of cases might have been compromised.
These cases reveal a multitude of flaws, ranging from poor procedure and unqualified examiners to outright fraud. But they share one common characteristic: The examiners work for prosecutors and the government, and are subject to subtle — and not so subtle — pressure to support the government’s case.
The latest revelations about the bias of FBI forensic reports should inspire Congress to take a hard look at the incentives built into the current system of forensic crime analysis and come up with a better model that restores balance and justice to the system.