FBI Errors May Have Gotten Some People Killed

In 2012, the FBI and Department of Justice launched a massive investigation into 2600 cases – including 45 death row convictions – stemming from the 1980s and 1990s. But after finding evidence of flawed forensic information in 160 cases, the FBI shut the review process down. The Washington Post reports that “According to the FBI, the delay resulted, in part, ‘from a vigorous debate that occurred within the FBI and DOJ about the appropriate scientific standards we should apply when reviewing FBI lab examiner testimony — many years after the fact.’” The Inspector General of the Justice Department rebuked the FBI over the delay. The result? The review has resumed.

Off by a hair

At the heart of the debate is hair – as in, using hair to link a person to a crime. Unlike fingerprints or DNA, hair has never been conclusively determined to be unique. So while we can test hair for DNA (which will give us an accurate reading), but the initial steps involve simply looking at the hair. And while the FBI policy says that hair matching is NOT acceptable for identification purposes, agents still used it to build their cases.

The DOJ has been pushing for this review since 1999, when they first discovered exaggerations made by an examiner named Michael P. Malone. Three years later, the DOJ said that all of the work by that lab could be suspect. The FBI did nothing.

Now, the two departments are slogging their way through thousands cases that used hair identification as part of the evidence to convict and finding that the labs made errors along the way. Caught in the crosshairs are a number of death row inmates who may have been wrongfully convicted because an FBI hair examiner claimed there was a “high degree of probability” that a sample belonged to the accused.

We don’t pretend to know everything about these cases, but we can assume that at least some of the men and women whose lives have been irreparably damaged by wrongful convictions will sue the government if their convictions are thrown out. That so much refutable evidence could have caused so much pain – we recoil in horror at the thought. Situations like these prove that if we continue to use capital punishment as a supposed crime deterrent in this country, then we must insist on full DNA proof on behalf of the prosecution. Otherwise, we’ll be facing another 2600 instances that are called into question just like these.