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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Mark Harrill (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 6:51am

    Sigh,,,

    Anyone know of an English speaking country that is accepting immigrants? I don't know that I can live in the US anymore...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    icon
    McCrea (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:17am

    Re: Sigh,,,

    Well, any boy is always welcome in the Land of Boobies.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:27am

    Re: Sigh,,,

    Me too. How do I get Canadian citizenship?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:33am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    OldGeezer (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:44am

    WOW! How could they pull this scam? Anyone who has watched The Forensic Files can tell you that hair alone cannot be "a perfect match". DNA can be extracted if the root is attached but other than that it can only be circumstantial evidence. Are you seriously telling me that defense attorneys couldn't call them on such bullshit?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    madasahatter (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:46am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Spaceman Spiff (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:47am

    FBI ==

    FBI == Federal Bureau of Ineptitude...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    Che (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:49am

    DOJ

    It wasn't the DOJ itself that utilized the questionable testing, it was the FBI. The DOJ has stepped in to make sure the corrections are done properly. I don't think that would be hard to check by googling if there's any doubt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:49am

    If they lied to get convictions in death penalty cases, would that make them guilty of murder?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:50am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:52am

    Re: Defensive straw man

    By "DOJ", I meant "FBI".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:52am

    'While the FBI is trying to downplay the significance of this'

    of course they are. none of them are sitting in prison, convicted of a crime they didn't commit!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:54am

    Re:

    Maybe they weren't aloud to.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    FormerAC (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:59am

    Re: Re:

    How about in writing then? Would they be allowed to do that?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Michael Barclay (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:10am

    The Onion already explained this

    The Onion already explained this, in its article, "Texas Executes 393rd Guilty Prisoner":
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Disgusted, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:17am

    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).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:31am

    Re:

    I think many organizations have a deeply flawed idea of what makes a "success". And this is just one of them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:35am

    Re: Re: Sigh,,,

    You might want to hold off on that until we see what happens with The Harper Government come next federal election. If they get back in power you might see Canadians starting to move somewhere else.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:39am

    Re: DOJ

    It wasn't the DOJ itself that utilized the questionable testing, it was the FBI. The DOJ has stepped in to make sure the corrections are done properly. I don't think that would be hard to check by googling if there's any doubt.

    FBI is a part of the DOJ.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    Baldaur Regis (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:43am

    The ordinary citizen in me wants to scream "When did the DOJ become so corrupt, so lost from their mission?" The cynic in me replies "July 1, 1870 - the date the DOJ came into existence."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 9:53am

    It's because they only care about one thing...


    ... Time Extortion

    Six months or thirty years, the choice is yours.

    To me that says - we don't have a good case, however if you fight us we'll use every dirty trick possible to destroy the next thirty years of your life.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Keroberos (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:14am

    Re:

    The scary thing is all of the alleged forensic sciences we've been relying on in our justice system for so long are little more than guesswork. The only one with any repeatable scientific proof behind it is DNA analysis.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:23am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    PRMan, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:32am

    Re:

    It should. If it can be proven that they knowingly used an invalid method and got a conviction that resulted in death, they should be prosecuted.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:34am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:35am

    Re: Re:

    Indeed, and it's certainly not unique to governmental organizations.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 10:36am

    Re: People need to understand the government are human

    Everyone wants to win


    Perhaps, but believe it or not, there are people who define "win" as "doing what's right," "finding the truth," and "bringing about justice."

    The DOJ appears not to use any of those definitions.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    sorrykb (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 11:13am

    Fingerprints

    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 www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A64711-2004May28.html 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).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Wolfy, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 11:41am

    I hear Belize is nice... Tropical country, English is spoken, the economy is based on the US dollar.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    sharon gidos, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:09pm

    Re: Sigh,,,

    Do you think we might be better off if we just put monkeys in charge in DC /

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:18pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    Lokie7, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:20pm

    Re: IldGeezer

    The Defense was never tol,according to the article. Thats Illegal in its self.The Justice system in this country is neither fair nor balanced,it is corrupt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    rob T, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:21pm

    hair analysis

    Have you looked into the accuracy of fingerprints? There are several academic articles questioning the uniqueness of them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:22pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
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    art guerrilla (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:40pm

    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
    eof

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    icon
    sorrykb (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 1:58pm

    Re: Re: Fingerprints

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

    My point exactly. :-)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
    identicon
    James, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 3:14pm

    DOJ/FBI

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    Rekrul, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 4:09pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 4:25pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    carol davies, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 5:45pm

    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

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
    identicon
    Jason, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 7:22pm

    Hey, I got an idea...

    "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."

    I've got an idea...how about we make willful concealment of possibly-exculpatory evidence a felony?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 7:55pm

    Why didn't anyone in the scientific community catch this screw up? Surely they we're called as 'expert' witnesses?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43.  
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    OldGeezer (profile), Jul 23rd, 2013 @ 8:55pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Jul 24th, 2013 @ 12:13am

    Re: Hey, I got an idea...

    You mean the Brady rule?
    Why yes there is a set of rules requiring them to turn over that evidence... shame they haven't investigated, disciplined, or tried anyone for violating that DoJ rule.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Jul 24th, 2013 @ 8:09am

    Re:

    when you see 'expert witness', read : mercenary...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  46.  
    icon
    Che (profile), Jul 24th, 2013 @ 11:25am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  47.  
    identicon
    regi, Jul 24th, 2013 @ 1:32pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  48.  
    identicon
    Dee, Jul 24th, 2013 @ 10:58pm

    Re: Sigh,,,

    YES I FEEL THE SAME EXACT WAY!!! I JUST WANT OUTA THE U.S.!!! THIS IS NOT A FREE COUNTRY ANYMORE!!! ITS BECOMING A COMMUNIST COUNTRY W/ A GOVERNMENT WHO CANT BE TRUSTED!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  49.  
    icon
    Niall (profile), Jul 26th, 2013 @ 5:08am

    Re: Re: Re: Sigh,,,

    If that was true, how come Harper got voted in?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  50.  
    icon
    Niall (profile), Jul 26th, 2013 @ 5:12am

    Re: Re: Sigh,,,

    Actually, you are in as much danger of the US becoming a communist country as you are of getting out of your car and falling up to the moon.

    Seriously, does no-one in the US actually know what Communism, Fascism or any other -ism is?

    These are the same people who say that atheism is a religion, but Islam isn't.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
    icon
    Niall (profile), Jul 26th, 2013 @ 5:14am

    Re: The Onion already explained this

    I hate it when the Onion is no longer satire, nor more ridiculous than reality.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
    identicon
    Guardian, Jul 28th, 2013 @ 7:27am

    i think stpudpeople.com 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.

    ITS YOUR PROBLEM SOLVE IT. DONT COME HERE AND START IT OVER AGAIN.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    Guardian, Jul 28th, 2013 @ 7:30am

    @50

    THANKS FOR THE LAUGH BUT FASCISM IS not COMMUNISM
    i suggest you retards go look up what you think is communism and see your fascism for what it really is.

    have a nice day ( saluts your police, military and corporate fascist pig overlords. )

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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