The FBI’s Can of Worms: Forensic review stalls, resumes on order of DOJ

The FBI’s massive review of criminal convictions with FBI forensic hair and fiber testimony, initiated in 2012, stalled in the face of widespread errors spanning two decades, but the review has resumed this month on order of the Justice Department. As reported by Spencer S. Hsu, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, “Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.”

Read Hsu’s comprehensive article here. Highlights directly from the article:

• The inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which the FBI’s hair and fiber unit reported a match to a crime-scene sample before DNA testing of hair became common. The FBI had reviewed about 160 cases before it stopped, officials said.

• According to a Justice Department spokesman, officials last August completed reviews and notified a first wave of defendants in 23 cases, including 14 death-penalty cases, that FBI examiners “exceeded the limits of science” when they linked hair to crime-scene evidence.

• After more than two years, the review will have addressed about 10 percent of the 2,600 questioned convictions and perhaps two-thirds of questioned death-row cases.

• The department is notifying defendants about errors in two more death-penalty cases and in 134 non-capital cases over the next month, and will complete evaluations of 98 other cases by early October, including 14 more death-penalty cases.

• No crime lab performed more hair examinations for federal and state agencies than the 10-member FBI unit, which testified in cases nationwide involving murder, rape and other violent felonies.

Read an earlier article on the background of the FBI’s review here.

The FBI’s probe of its own hair and fiber forensic testimony is just one of many alarming indications of the need for an overhaul in the nation’s forensic science system. In February 2009, a congressionally mandated report based on a two-year study by the National Research Council came to this conclusion: “Badly Fragmented Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul; Evidence to Support Reliability of Many Techniques Is Lacking.” The report revealed systemic problems and made recommendations.

Four years after this report was released, the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology responded by creating a National Commission on Forensic Science to recommend guidelines for federal, state and local forensic laboratories, as well as design policy on ethics, training, and certification for forensic professionals.

Five years following the report—in early January of this year, 2014—the U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce announced appointments to this new National Commission on Forensic Science. The press release announcing the appointees noted, “Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal gaining and certification.”

The extent of error revealed in the latest probe was enough to stall the FBI, and in spite of the 2009 Congressionally mandated report that was unequivocal in its recommendation for massive reform, Americans—including those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned—wait for answers and real advances toward correcting past errors and preventing more miscarriages prompted by highly compelling but unreliable science.


7 responses to “The FBI’s Can of Worms: Forensic review stalls, resumes on order of DOJ

  1. This has been going on a very long time. I highly recommend the book ”Tainting Evidence” about what was going on in the FBI lab in the 1990s. Many of those abuses were swept under the rug, just like some of the more recent abuses have been.

  2. Thank you, Martin, for this recommendation. Let’s hope that growing awareness of flaws in the forensic sciences will drive more transparency, answers, and genuine reforms.

  3. Unfortunately, Tainting Evidence is out of print. See for an excellent article from the St. Petersburg Times in 2001 about Fred Whitehurst, who blew the whistle on FBI Crime Lab corruption and junk science in the 1990’s, and Michael Malone, who built his own career on perpetrating junk. As the article says, “The careers of two stellar FBI agents collided over the most important questions of truth. The collision erupted in scandal. One of the agents was allowed to retire with honor. The other was drummed out. You might not guess which is which.”

    • Sheiia, thank you for this link and for sharing your memory and knowledge of the background on FBI crime lab troubles. At least one recent article on the latest review referenced this history but not with this detail. Thank you.

  4. Linda Van Tassel

    Next will be the fingerprints — the holy grail of the FBI — mark my words

Leave a Reply to Nancy Petro Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s