DOJ/FBI Admit They May Have Abused Hair Analysis To Convict Hundreds To Thousands Of Innocent People

from the our-doj-at-work dept

I’ve mentioned in the past how my eyes were opened as to how the Justice Department prosecutes various criminal cases after seeing a powerful documentary called Better This World, which detailed (in part) the prosecution against two teens for supposedly planning to plant some bombs at a political convention. While the two teens are hardly innocent, the ridiculous tactics pulled by the US Attorneys’ office and the FBI in pressuring them into a plea bargain made it clear that for the DOJ, it’s never about justice, but about winning. And that can be a bit dangerous when you’re the guys with the most guns and you get to make up many of the rules as you go along.

So while this following bit of news is horrifying, it’s not that surprising: late last week, it was revealed that the DOJ/FBI have more or less admitted that they may have abused microscopic hair analysis in over 2,000 cases, leading to many convictions and a few people already put to death. Apparently over 120 convictions, including 27 death penalty convictions are now seen as suspect due to the questionable analysis — with more likely on the way.

The main issue was that the DOJ more or less lied about what hair analysis meant, and how accurate it is (it’s not that accurate). Also, when the DOJ realized this rather serious issue likely led to many false convictions, it started telling prosecutors only, but not defense attorneys.

The FBI began reviewing a few hundred cases, but notified only prosecutors of flaws, with the Department of Justice claiming they were not required to inform defendants or their lawyers. In more than half of the 250 cases in which errors were initially identified, prosecutors never contacted defendants to inform them of the potentially exonerating evidence. The DOJ since expanded its review to involve thousands of older cases from the 1980s and 1990s.

There’s been plenty of talk lately about DNA evidence exonerating falsely convicted persons, and according to the Innocence Project, a large number of those false convictions were due to bogus hair analysis by the DOJ:

Of 310 individuals exonerated through DNA evidence, according to an Innocence Project database, 72 were convicted in part because of microscopic hair evidence.

Some died before they could be exonerated.

Basically, the key issue seems to be that hair is not a unique match — that is, it’s not like DNA or a fingerprint or something. It can suggest some information about the type of person, but that’s about it. Yet, the DOJ regularly used it in cases to suggest that it was a “perfect match” implying that hair analysis was no different than, say, a fingerprint.

While the DOJ has now agreed to review thousands of cases, including informing defendants of the possible flaws, it will also “waive deadlines and procedural hurdles that typically make it difficult to challenge convictions.” Finally, the FBI has agreed ” to provide DNA testing to every defendant whose case involves evidence deemed flawed by the FBI.” That’s a pretty big deal, showing that at least someone in the DOJ and the FBI realized just how absolutely massive a screwup this has been for decades.

While the FBI is trying to downplay the significance of this, their actions suggest they realize how spectacularly they screwed up:

“There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed ‘flawed’ forensic techniques,” FBI Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said in an email. “The purpose of the review is to determine if FBI Laboratory examiner testimony and reports properly reflect the bounds of the underlying science.”

Riiiiight. You don’t agree to DNA tests for so many people if you’re just confirming that the FBI didn’t exaggerate here or there. This revelation is quite the black eye for the DOJ and shows, yet again, how a focus on “winning” over actual justice distorts the incentives.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “DOJ/FBI Admit They May Have Abused Hair Analysis To Convict Hundreds To Thousands Of Innocent People”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sigh,,,

You have to apply for citizenship somewhere there, not sure what department.

I read that after 2004 Canada had trouble with a lot of anti-Bush Americans moving to Canada illegally moving to Canada without even applying for citizenship first, because they couldn’t take 4 more years of Bush.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

While DNA is the only evidence with convincing scientific reasoning attached, finger prints do have a lot of years with empirical “proof” that it is very high certainty of establishing opportunity and that does count for something.

Btw. Looking through a microscope to determine if hair is from the same source is a bit naive to use as an important piece of evidence. It is circumstancial at best.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Hair = Blood Type

Blood type can be used to eliminate a suspect but not to prove the identity. If your blood type matches the type of suspect it does prove you did not only that further investigation is needed to prove guilt or innocence.

Hair samples appear to do the same; eliminate suspects only. If one’s hair matches the hair at the scene guilt can not be assumed. But it should cause a more thorourgh investigation.

Something unique like fingerprints or DNA (no identical twins) places a specific individual at the scene. Strictly speaking this evidence may not prove guilt (depends on exactly where the evidence was found) but certainly requires a very good reason why the fingerprints or DNA were found.

Che (profile) says:

Re: Re: DOJ

Yes- – the DOJ supervises the FBI, who has its own systems and tests in place for use in prosecuting suspects. It was not the Dept of Justice that authorized questionable tests, but the FBI. Now the DOJ is stepping in to make sure all parties affected by this possibly false testing will have the record corrected. And if the DOJ steps in to prosecute Zimmerman it will only be because they find mistakes or overlooked aspects of that case as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

May I suggest the following:

Make an assembly by the people.
continue the assembly despite a ban,
take over the prison,
let the higher class flee,
let the women win the war
and bring forth the guillotine for the aftermath.

It is a true and tested method.

The success-rate is likely higher than judicial scholars getting jailed for nothing more than basically lying. Hell, if you banned lawyers for lying, their mere existance would be a conundrum.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Defensive straw man

There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed ?flawed? forensic techniques

Well, that’s nice, but entirely beside the point. This statement is a blatant attempt at distraction.

The takeaway I got from this story is not that the forensic techniques themselves were flawed, but that they were misrepresented in court. The DOJ is trying to change the argument to one where they’re likely on very solid ground, as the lab itself probably did the right thing.

It’s a sleazy tactic by the DOJ.

carol davies says:

Re: william R.Davies 111211

William is my son you have be in Florida prison since 1986.
I have had a number of my friends who are lawyer read his case and shake their head how could he has been sentence to life in prison. In is trial paper he did not kill anyone. If some one in the right mind would read his case can see he is not guilty ,but they gave him life at the age of 18.We tried everything but no one will take time to see his case. He is a Canadian .His family is in Canada. Please do say none of them are sitting in prison, convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, Look up his case and read and see if you will say none of them

Michael Barclay (profile) says:

The Onion already explained this

The Onion already explained this, in its article, “Texas Executes 393rd Guilty Prisoner”:,32985/

Only problem, of course, is that Texas has executed 500 inmates. ?As of today, Texas leads all states with its 500 total executions, 393 of whom were guilty individuals, and 98 executions of prisoners who they?re fairly certain were guilty.? Cole noted, however, that Texas was tied with Florida for the most executions that, in retrospect, they weren?t all that sure about, with nine apiece.

Disgusted (profile) says:

This and other similar failures are to be expected. The DOJ, all departments, and in fact most government agencies, promote people and base their salaries on their successes, meaning won prosecutions. People who encourage the defendant to present dissenting or exculpatory evidence, lose cases and don’t get promoted (or maybe end up in Alaska).

Anonymous Coward says:

People need to understand the government are human

and shows, yet again, how a focus on “winning” over actual justice distorts the incentives.

Everyone wants to win. People need to stop treating government entities like machines and produce results, and instead like the collection of flawed, selfish human beings they are.

Stop giving more power than absolutely necessary. It will always be abused.

sorrykb says:


Basically, the key issue seems to be that hair is not a unique match — that is, it’s not like DNA or a fingerprint or something.

The commonly-accepted idea that each person’s fingerprints are unique has not been proven. Beyond that, the criteria used to declare a “100% match” vary from examiner to another. There is also no uniform standard for validating expertise in fingerprint analysis.

This article and numerous studies have raised concerns about reliance on fingerprint analysis.

So… in terms of “scientific” evidence, I’d say fingerprint identification ranks above polygraph testing but far far below DNA (assuming of course that DNA testing is done properly using acceptable and non-contaminated samples).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Fingerprints

DNA matching suffers from the same problems as fingerprint matching, and for many of the same reasons (only looking at a tiny subset of the data) — plus some fascinating new problems.

I’d say fingerprint identification ranks above polygraph testing

Well, since polygraph testing is actually worthless for determining whether someone is speaking truthfully or not, that’s a given.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Fingerprints

It depends how many points the fingerprint matches. Each additional point raises the probability exponentially. If you have more that one finger or perhaps a palm print the certainly also increases. If there is other reliable evidence the odds against the person singled out by it also having good print matches meets the burden of beyond reasonable doubt. I have heard of cases being reversed because the prints were poor quality and should never been used. Hair can exclude a suspect but can never be called a “perfect match”. Any defense attorney who does not challenge that is inept. No judge should ever allow that. Other evidence that is given too much weight is eyewitness, fiber and especially bite marks.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

been corrupted a long time...

a brave PUBLIC SERVANT named Frederic Whitehurst blew the whistle on these kreepazoids some years back…

they are scum, with a smattering of idiotic boy scouts who don’t know shit about shit, a *bunch* of fools and tools, and a few psychotics to do the dirty work…

the feebs are nothing but goons for the state-run dis-organized crime units…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

James says:


Zimmerman move aside now we have a new case of “Let’s Protect the Man with the Badge and the Gun”. As I an American I’m embarrasses before other countries’ judicial system. Fair and impartial – hum. In the famous words of “You will get a fair trail”, while on your way to jail. We need to rid all law enforcement with questionable history and begin with a new regime. This is becoming ridiculous and embarrassing to our children, lower law enforcement, learning institutions and judicial system.

Rekrul says:

While the two teens are hardly innocent, the ridiculous tactics pulled by the US Attorneys’ office and the FBI in pressuring them into a plea bargain made it clear that for the DOJ, it’s never about justice, but about winning.

It’s not just the FBI and DOJ that do this, local prosecutors do it as well. I personally know a woman who was pressured into taking a plea bargain for something that wasn’t her fault. She was threatened with so many charges and so much jail time, that she felt she had no other option. Plus she only had a crappy public defender for a lawyer.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

When the systems rewards only winning, why are we surprised?
They didn’t take on Wall Street because they couldn’t be sure it was a slam dunk, despite piles of evidence. They opted not to. So to boost their win ratio and get better salary and bonuses they go after the low hanging fruit.

Gameification of the legal system has lead to the high court/low court we aren’t supposed to have.

The US has finally reached that level they publicly call out in other countries, it really is time for change and if they refuse it is time for revolution.

regi says:

fingerprints are not conclusive identification

there is NO scientific evidence that fingerprints are unique to a particular individual. They are SUBJECTIVELY assessed by individuals who have varying degrees of experience and ALWAYS have varying degrees of bias toward one side of case or another. fingerprints are no more reliable as evidence than eyewitness accounts and science has PROVEN that they are not reliable at all.

Guardian says:

i think is taken

canada should shut its borders now OH WAIT the visa people are on strike GOOD this will stop all immigration for a while and we can then not take any yanks that want to be stupid about rights when they come up here and allow evil to begin again.


Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...