More on the Hair Analysis Caper: The FBI pulls back from admitting fault

My previous blog on this subject of the joint effort by the FBI, the US Department of Justice (it agrees tolling of statute of limitations on case reviews) and the Innocence Project on hair matching cases contains some interesting politically correct comments from its participants.

“There is no reason to believe the FBI Laboratory employed ‘flawed’ forensic techniques,” Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said. “The purpose of the review is to determine if FBI Laboratory examiner testimony and reports properly reflect the bounds of the underlying science.” They add that In addition to reviewing individual cases, the FBI is also using the review process to improve lab training, testimony, audit systems and research.

I wonder how all these promises will pan out. I hate to be such a skeptic, BUT if this “hair” problem” reflects the protocol module for in-house validity testing of the FBI, then their reaction time to initiate self review is about as slow as a three legged Galapagos tortoise. Their record: composite bullet Lead fiasco, whistleblowing on bomb residue,the Brandon Mayfield fingerprint mismatch with their promised response to it, and other examples of overreaching forensic expertise in other ares besides hair , This reflects a forensic bureaucracy and culture that some would say infects major aspects of the entire forensic community. The naysayers to the existence of any systemic perils in police related forensic science would preach their litany of, “Ah, the FBI problems are just an outlier” or that the “FBI lab needs certification by the ASCLD” to assure their accuracy and results.” Here’s an excellent overview of crime lab vagaries of their staffs, gaffs and misdemeanors of forensic examiners and the ASCLD myth as posted by Justin Peters on Slate.com.

I recently heard AAFS (7,000 member strong of forensic aficianados) current pres Barry Logan, on NPR touting the charms of ASCLD for any labs’ validity testing and his rigorous belief in the good old scientific method. Well, it hasn’t helped his old lab, the Houston crime lab, and other labs from spoofing results and the dry labbing examiners. The audio file of this meeting of Jack Nicas (who did an excellent thumbnail outline of forensic problems in the US Courts) of the Wall Street Journal, Barry Logan, Peter Neufeld of the IP and an absolutely astonished Tom Ashbrook, the host of “On-Point is a classic and well worth the listening effort. It is impressive to hear Peter Neufeld’s moderate responses to Logan’s assuaging any doubts listeners may have in the poor over sight abilities of the AAFS (plus some of its associated organizations), the ASCLD and the US government, (Logan neglects mentioning his own little professional speed bump). Logan praises of “organized” (meaning self-organized and independent from anyone) forensic practitioners’ “honest Abe” mentality as the foundational character of police and law enforcement governed crime labs is also astonishing to hear. Let’s talk about science, Barry, not hackneyed homilies of “ipse dixit” and its synonym phrase “trust me, I’m a doctor.” These platitudes only work in court with a lay jury.

Back to the headlines. The FBI at least has the resources to do some reflection because its a taxpayer funded entity. But The review includes every case between 1985 and 2000 in which the FBI found a positive association between hair taken from defendants and hair found at a crime scene. Uh, well, then what? What about the bad bullet lead cases before 2004? Currently, its being announced that at least 127 of these “hair” convictions involved sentences of death.

Much like my bite mark brethren who speak of their value for crime investigations (regardless of 10 % of the group having participated in wrongful conviction prosecutions or false arrests) but never speak of how or when that has happened, maybe the FBI hope to keep their more recent casework a secret. The other common link between the FBI and the dental bite mark board, the ABFO, is that both forensic practices were deemed “highly unreliable” or “unvalidated” in their core scientific principles in 2009 by a National Academy of Sciences report that specifically concluded that hair sample analyses and strongly implied bite mark “matches” cannot be linked to one person.

Another strange aspect of the FBI bowing to this review, is that their spokes-lady Ann Todd, added that despite the poor reliability, microscopic hair analysis is “a valid forensic technique and one that is still conducted at the lab” along with DNA testing. I hope she mis-spoke and really meant the FBI is still doing mtDNA from hair. This gives one a shiver if we are listening to more Belt-way revolving cyber speak.

Peter Neufeld, the co-director of the Innocence Project, was also interviewed by other news agencies and applauded the FBI’s admission that there may be an issue with the validity of some of the findings in the cases. Then the FBO denies it. Neufeld sounds expansive:

“The government’s willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors in an extraordinarily large number of cases is truly unprecedented,” he said in a press release. The review “signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles,” Neufeld said. “Unfortunately hair analysis is only one of many flawed forensic practices that are still used that pose the threat of infecting criminal trials across the nation.”

“It is possible to conduct hair microscopy and find similarities among various samples. But it appears that in many cases the FBI analysts were overstating the significance of these similarities, often leaving juries with the false impression that a hair recovered from the crime scene must have come from the defendant and could not have come from anyone else,” he added. “The government is now acknowledging that this was wrong and that the science does not support such conclusions,”

So there’s the timeline. Its after Neufeld’s initial press release that the FBI sent Ms. Todd to the news world podium to declaim any systemic errors in hair opinions. Case closed as far as that question, thank you Ms. Todd. If that’s the case, then what’s the FBI reviewing? Their examiners’ compliance with the agencies protocols which have previously been refuted? I bet they want to nab a few agent/examiners to misdirect any blame to a few “rogue” people and not the underlying beliefs, assumptions, of matching human by their hair.

Sound familiar?

About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
This entry was posted in Bad Forensic Science, Bite Marks, Bitemarks, criminal justice, CSI, Forensic Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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