Flawed FBI Hair Analysis: Defendants Kept in the Dark

‘Flawed Forensics’ (episode 3 of the Al Jazeera America series, The System) reveals that when conducting forensic hair analysis, FBI experts were often pressured to skew results in favor of the prosecution (see FBI Hair Analysis: Favoring the Prosecution).

More than that, though, the program reports that the FBI and the Department of Justice have known about these practices for a long time:

“Prosecutors were notified about these findings, but few revisited their cases. For more than a decade many defendants were left in the dark. Now letters have started reaching defense attorneys across the country, notifying them that the forensic testimony used to convict their clients was flawed.”

Only days before he was scheduled to be executed, Willie Manning discovered that the hair analysis and testimony in his 1992 case was flawed. John Huffington, the other man who features in the Al Jazeera documentary, found out only through a journalist that the hair testimony at his trial had been discredited, as his lawyer recalls:

“This internal FBI report was completely unknown to us, until an investigative reporter from the Washington Post contacted us about that report in November 2011.”

John Huffington himself has difficulty containing his emotion when he adds:

“If it wasn’t for the Washington Post, we wouldn’t have known today. Twelve years ago in my case they could have fixed it. I’m 51, so that’s another twelve years I lost. I don’t get it back.”

Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General, Department of Justice, criticizes the lack of action:

“The notion that when you’re presented with clear and undeniable evidence that you’ve convicted the wrong person, that people won’t step away from that and do their very best as quickly as possible to acknowledge that there was a mistake made and to try to remediate the problem and make amends to the defendant, I find that extraordinarily disappointing.”

John Huffington reflects on how things could be improved:

“It’s supposed to be a justice system, so justice should be what prevails. Justice and truth is what this is supposed to be about. There should never be a rush to judgment; it shouldn’t be politically expedient. It shouldn’t be easy to put somebody on death row. It shouldn’t be easy to take somebody’s life, and it shouldn’t be easy to just lock somebody up and throw away the key.”

The last word is given to Fred Westhurst, a former FBI forensic expert and whistle blower, who is clear that the issues raised affect far more people than those we have seen in the documentary:

“The real victims of this are the nation, people who’ve believed in this justice system and find that it is very, very flawed. We need systems that we trust. But we don’t need to trust them blindly. It’s not simply the people incarcerated. It’s not simply the families. It’s the communities. It’s the nation.”

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