Case highlights harmful impact of flawed FBI hair testimony

The Guardian has effectively put a human face here on the tragedy of the FBI’s admission this week that its agents presented flawed testimony in almost every trial in which they testified against criminal defendants for more than two decades before 2000.

The face is that of George Perrot, whose case was previously covered on the Wrongful Convictions Blog here and in which, it should be noted, this writer has played a small role.

Perrot was convicted as a teenager on rape charges in 1985 greatly on the testimony of FBI agent Wayne Oakes that a hair found on the victim’s bed was similar to a known sample of Perrot’s hair. It didn’t matter to the jury that the elderly victim said that the rape didn’t occur on the bed or that the long-haired, bearded Perrot didn’t resemble the short-haired, clean-shaven man who raped her. Oakes’ testimony was enough, an appeals court later ruled, to put Perrot behind bars, where he has languished for 30 years.

Thanks to the pro-bono work of the Ropes & Gray law firm, Perrot is back in court trying to clear his name, but Massachusetts prosecutors are still defending his conviction. They say Perrot did not file his claim in a timely manner and that there is other evidence of his guilt — a common refrain that many others convicted on the FBI’s hair-comparison testimony are sure to hear in the coming months and years as their cases make it into court.

2 responses to “Case highlights harmful impact of flawed FBI hair testimony

  1. Thank you for highlighting the human angle on this milestone development—I am gratified that the F.B.I. has publicly conceded the problems with its hair analysis techniques.

    The “science” of visual hair analysis evolved in the context of the courtroom, just like the early guidelines for arson investigation, which had to be abandoned when researchers finally tested their opinions scientifically (see Phil Locke’s excellent treatment on this blog at https://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2012/03/02/arson-investigation-after-decades-of-junk-science/). The analysts were sincere, but their objectivity was clouded by their goals and expectations.

    As thousands of innocent families know, today’s guidelines for diagnosing child abuse are tainted by the same history. The most obvious example is shaken baby theory, which entered the courtroom before it was proven and has since been calcified by decades of convictions—even as doctors outside the child abuse arena recognize a growing number of medical conditions that can produce the same findings, and as biomechanical research continues to raise doubts about the diagnosis (see, for example, http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/shaken-baby-syndrome/).

    I hope the scientific bodies that are looking at forensics in the courtroom will review the historical literature regarding shaken baby syndrome, and apply the same rigorous analysis to the medical opinions that I have seen tearing apart innocent families and sending innocent caretakers to prison.

  2. Reblogged this on FORENSICS in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends and commented:
    Forensic errors in over 90% of cases mistakes seem trivial when Prosecutors say “other evidence” proves guilt.” This happens when witnesses and informants recant, DNA is exculpatory, alibis prove true, and new research says old forensic methods were junk. The DA blame game is continues after exoneration as well. Nearly any excuse is thrown put to see “if it sticks.” This post digs into all of this. My last few blogs echoes what is presented below by the WrongConvBlog. Also, take a look at their previous blogs on the subject.

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