FBI Evidence Review Highlights Risk of Forensic Errors and Misconduct

The FBI review of cases that involved flawed testimony about forensic evidence helps call attention to broader potential issues with forensic evidence.

In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a review of criminal cases that used hair comparison evidence from FBI labs. According to The Washington Post, the FBI recently reported that 95 percent of the cases reviewed so far involved flawed testimony. Alarmingly, in some of these cases, this evidence may have contributed to wrongful convictions.

To many people in Statesville, the use of this questionable evidence may seem like a fairly isolated occurrence. However, reports show that forensic evidence issues, from falsification to exaggeration, are troublingly common in criminal cases.

FBI Evidence Issues

As of April, the FBI had reviewed 342 cases that involved hair microscopy evidence. In 268 of those cases, this forensic evidence was used in trial. In over 95 percent of those cases, including 32 death-penalty cases, FBI analysts gave testimony that overstated the reliability of the evidence.

Here in North Carolina, for example, one man was convicted of a serious sex crime partly on the basis of hair comparison evidence. An FBI forensic analyst had matched the man's hair to two hairs that were found at the scene of the alleged crime. In trial, the expert testified that the odds of the hair belonging to someone else were only 1 in 1,000. During the recent review, the FBI concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support that assertion.

These issues with flawed testimony reflect the problems inherent to using subjective forensic evidence. As the Innocence Project explains, various forms of forensic evidence have never been scientifically tested or validated. Still, analysts often present this evidence as reliable in trial, and jurors often view it as credible. Questionable evidence, such as comparison of bite marks, shoe prints and firearm tool marks, may result in many people facing wrongful charges or even convictions.

Broader Forensic Problems

Unfortunately, the use of subjective evidence isn't the only forensic practice that can lead to wrongful convictions. Mistakes or misconduct on the part of analysts can also have harmful effects. The Innocence Project identifies the following issues as ones that can result in dangerously flawed forensic evidence:

  • Innocent errors - due to inadequate training, limited resources or other issues, forensic analysts may make inadvertent mistakes.
  • Limited guidance - a lack of uniform scientific standards to govern some forms of forensic testing may also raise the risk of evidence issues.
  • Misconduct - less frequently, analysts may fabricate results or fail to report evidence that could support a defendant's case.

As an example, in one case, a crime lab chemist "identified" drugs by just looking at evidence samples. According to Business Insider, the chemist identified over 60,000 samples during her career. Her misconduct may have caused a huge number of wrongful drug crime convictions.

The potential for misconduct and errors should be carefully considered during any criminal case that hinges on forensic evidence. Anyone facing charges supported by forensic evidence should consider consulting with an attorney about mounting a defense against those charges.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, wrongful, conviction