Impressed when an FBI forensic expert testifies in court? Jurors likely are too, but the FBI's hair-comparison unit actually gave unscientific testimony against criminal defendants for more than 20 years before 2000, according to the FBI and the Justice Dept. Among the FBI's 28 microscopic hair experts, 26 "overstated forensic matches" to favor the prosecution in nearly all of the 268 cases reviewed so far, the Washington Post reports. "The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster," says Peter Neufeld, who helped found the Innocence Project. The reviewed cases include 32 defendants given the death sentence, 14 of whom have already died in prison or were executed; about 2,500 cases involving hair matches are being looked at in all.
Of course, other evidence may have sufficed to convict defendants found guilty. But the FBI, acknowledging the problem, has agreed to work with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project in reviewing cases between 1972 and 1999. Now 46 states and the District of Columbia are receiving information that could lead to appeals, if defense lawyers, prosecutors, or judges are willing or able. Truth is, there's no scientific standard for matching hair, the Post says. Worse, the forensic-hair scandal is only part of an ongoing review of all criminal forensics, which the Post has reported on here, here, and here. "The forensic science system ... has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure," a science panel concluded back in 2009.