FBI Hair Analysis: Favoring the Prosecution

‘Flawed Forensics’, episode 3 of the Al Jazeera America series, ‘The System’, is about what is termed ‘an FBI scandal of manipulated forensic evidence that may have led to thousands of wrongful convictions over the past three decades’. We hear from Fred Whitehurst (forensic chemist and retired FBI agent), who blew the whistle on the Bureau’s crime lab:

“I walked into Alice’s Wonderland as a scientist. There wasn’t any science. This thing about hair analysis – it’s not science. It’s a subjective nightmare. With hair analysis when you’re looking through a microscope you don’t know how many hair characteristics you have to match. You can choose how many match. And it’s depending upon the person that’s doing the analysis, not upon fact, not upon data, not upon a standard.

“The 2000 ton pink elephant in the court room is that the FBI trained every hair examiner in the United States in crime labs. There are hundreds of thousands of hair  cases where people came in and looked through a … microscope for a week or two weeks at the most, went home and started rendering opinions about whether hair matched or not.”

“I wrote 237 letters over a period of five years to the Inspector General. There were issues of reports being rewritten without my knowledge or authorization, equipments dirty, testimonies being given that’s way beyond people’s expertise. They sent the evidence in. And they’re trying to tell you, ‘Look at this without any bias at all’. Then they tell you what they think you’d better find. You had better made sure that this thing came out a particular way.

Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General, Department of Justice, elaborates: ‘making sure that this thing came out a particular way’ meant favoring the prosecution.

“We found that results of analysis were skewed in favor of the prosecution. It wasn’t just a couple of analysts. It was a significant number of people in the lab, analysts in the lab, managers in the lab, who were just allowing bad and misleading work to come out of the lab. There were simply not very many experienced scientists in key lab positions.”

A former federal prosecutor, Joseph Diginova, confirms the extent of the flawed results:

“This is a royal pain in the neck. Federal prosecutors and judges all over the country are going to have to deal now with motions by pending defendants, and already convicted defendants, about the scientific evidence in their cases. This is not a good thing for the FBI.”

If this is a problem for prosecutors and judges, then all the more must it be so for those convicted on the basis of flawed hair analysis. John Huffington, featured in the program alongside Willie, was wrongfully convicted in this way; recent DNA testing has proved the original FBI analysis for his case was wrong.

Huffington’s lawyer, Ryan Malone, talks about his lack of trust in the FBI’s forensic methods:

“We knew there were problems with this technique. There are many documented cases where analysts have matched things like carpet fibers to head hair. It was only when the FBI got involved again that they were able to actually test the hairs. So the FBI lab itself eventually determined that John Huffington could not be matched through the DNA to these hairs. They were able to interpret the shoddy work of their own analyst.”

The FBI was invited to be interviewed, but refused the request. In a written response it stated, ‘There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed flawed forensic hair testimony. Microscopic hair analysis is a valid forensic technique and one that is still conducted at the FBI Laboratory.

Whitehurst spells out the consequences for Willie and for John Huffington of the flawed FBI hair testimony at their trials:

“Is Mr Manning innocent? Is Mr Huffington innocent? That’s for us to decide when we have the truth before us. Somebody can take you, sir, away from whatever your family is, having done something that you never did, that you were never close to, and put you in a cage. And in a death chamber. It’s not a joke.”

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