We’ve all seen trials, mostly on TV but some of us – trial attorneys in particular – have seen real criminal cases being tried in front of real juries. And in lots of those cases, the evidence presented on behalf of the state consists of “experts” in one or another area of forensic science. There are blood spatter experts, DNA experts, ballistics experts – you name a subject, the prosecutor will have an expert to swear to something that nails the defendant. But what happens when an entire group of experts is giving flawed testimony that appears to support a conviction, but is false or overstated, thereby unfairly favoring the prosecution?
That’s what happened back just a couple of years ago, and the ramifications are being felt even two years later. It involved, of all things, microscopic hair analysis. It might not seem very important, but when a hair analysis expert says that it’s your hair that was found at the murder scene, or in a car allegedly used to transport a victim, or on a weapon supposedly used to assault or kill someone – the testimony is nothing less than devastating to the defense.
The Washington Post reported a stunning discovery in 2015. The story was horrifying on a number of levels, and came down to this: The FBI has a special unit in its laboratory dealing with microscopic hair comparison. They have examiners in what they describe as an “elite” forensic unit. But the reporters learned, and the FBI eventually admitted, that nearly every one of the examiners gave flawed testimony in almost every trial in which they testified involving the issue of microscopic hair analysis. At the time of the article the FBI had reviewed 268 trials, and had found the following:
- Of the 28 examiners in the unit, 26 gave flawed testimony.
- Of the 268 trials reviewed at that time, examiners overstated forensic hair matches in 95% of the cases.
- The cases included 32 in which the defendants had been sentenced to death, 14 of whom had already been executed.
We bring this up not merely to report on another way in which defendants are wrongfully convicted. The fact is that several states, including Arizona, are now initiating their own review of criminal cases involving microscopic hair analysis. We’ll be interested to see the outcome. Obviously, some cases, probably most, involved other incriminating evidence in addition to the hair analysis. On the other hand, when an FBI “expert” testifies for the prosecution, it can completely obliterate whatever reasonable doubt may exist in the minds of the jurors.
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