When juries are told that science all but proves that a defendant committed a crime, this compelling evidence practically guarantees a conviction — but what of the wrongful convictions when the so-called science is false? It has now come to light that thousands of accused have faced the pseudo-science of microscopic hair analysis, a non-DNA based technique of evaluating hair found a crime scene that the National Academy of Science has called “highly unreliable.” Researchers looking back on convictions based on the technique have concluded that the junk science method prompted FBI lab technicians to overstate forensic matches in ways that favored prosecution in more than 95% of the cases. That figure is truly staggering: it includes 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom have been executed or died in prison. The Washington Post reports, “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.”
This is decades’ worth of potentially wrongful convictions. The New York Times recently wrote of a jury being told by an FBI analyst that the odds were 10-million-to-one against hair strands, found at the scene of a 1978 murder, belonging to anyone but the defendant. That’s evidence a jury cannot ignore and, not surprisingly, this argument led to a conviction and lengthy sentence. But now that technology has caught up and debunked the junk science, DNA reveals that some of the hair at issue was not even human (it was dog hair), and none of it came from the defendant. The defendant served more than 30 years in prison for the murder before this information came to light. In another example, a defendant spent 21 years on death row for a racially charged double-murder conviction based on an FBI expert who said a hair sample linked him to the crime. He received an eleventh hour stay of execution only after the Department of Justice delivered letters calling the FBI’s microscopic hair comparison analysis flawed, invalid, and exceeding the limits of science.
And so it appears that microscopic hair analysis now joins a host of other forms of junk science that have held sway through the years, causing disturbing wrongful convictions. For instance, Loevy & Loevy attorney Gayle Horn took on a county in Texas where numerous people were being convicted of murder crimes based on a deputy sheriff’s invented “dog sniff line-up” — his self-trained pet dogs supposedly smelled out the culprits, sometimes months after the crime had been committed. Ms. Horn and attorney Karl Leonard of Winston and Strawn also won exoneration and a certificate of innocence for James Kluppelberg, who spent 24 years in prison for supposedly starting a fire that killed six people. Mr. Kluppelberg was convicted in part because of now-discredited pseudo-scientific testimony that the “burn patterns” of the fire proved it was arson. Modern science, however, eviscerates any reliance on these so-called burn patterns. And much has been written about countless false convictions based on flawed “bite mark analyses” (where an expert testifies that the bite mark on a victim’s body definitively matches the defendant’s teeth).
It is hard for juries to resist an expert explaining that some scientific method proves an accused is guilty. But when that method is based on junk science, the results can be tragic. Anyone convicted based on bogus microscopic hair analysis should consider contacting The Exoneration Project at University of Chicago, a dedicated team of attorneys, law students, interns, and volunteers who work pro bono to free the innocent in Chicago and across the country.