More junk forensic “science”

Nice piece by Dahlia Lithwick last week on how the “science” of hair matching is pretty much bunk and the FBI has been systematically representing it in court for decades:

The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” …

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” [emphasis mine] The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project…

Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.

The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

I will take issue with that “raises questions” in the previous paragraph.  There’s not questions, we actually are quite sure that bite mark analysis is complete bunk and as much science as astrology.  Lithwick concludes:

Since prison-crowding and justice reform are widely touted as issues that unite the left and the right in this country, going back and retesting the evidence of those who may well have been wrongly imprisoned should be a national priority. So far it isn’t, perhaps because the scope of the enterprise is so daunting. Or perhaps because nobody really cares all that much about people who’ve been sitting in jail for years and years. Says Garrett: “These victims may remain unrecognized and in prison—if they still live—and the same unscientific testimony continues to be delivered without limitation. … But hey, these are just criminal cases right?”

Yep.  Lord knows how many people are rotting away in prison for fake “science” that we’ve known for years isn’t actually science, but prosecutors have been pretending (and judges have been going along) actually is for years.  You’d like to think that now that we know how bad the scope of the problem is, we can make some progress.  Alas, it seems the scope of the problem may be scaring off people from taking it on.  Until then, just more innocent people in jail.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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