The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), will review 2,000 cases in which microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence was conducted by the FBI Laboratory. The review, prompted by the DNA-based exoneration of several men convicted on the basis of hair microscopy, will focus on “specific cases in which FBI Laboratory reports and testimony included statements that were scientifically invalid.” The Innocence Project’s announcement of the review is here; a representative news article is here.
In a move that shows just how seriously the DOJ is taking this review, it has done something unheard of:
Because of the importance attached to these cases, the DOJ has agreed, for the first time in its history, not to raise procedural objections, such as statute of limitations and procedural default claims, in response to the petitions of criminal defendants seeking to have their convictions overturned because of faulty FBI microscopic hair comparison laboratory reports and/or testimony.
Translation: DOJ is not going to fight this review in any of these cases; they’re going to be part of it.
It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the shift in outlook this represents. Usually, as readers of Failed Evidence know, law enforcement (and I include DOJ in that phrase) resists science-based review and testing; that’s the thrust of the book. I am happy to say that this is refreshingly different. According to Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, “[t]he government’s willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors in an extraordinarily large number of cases is truly unprecedented. It signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles.”
Of course, this review will not affect cases in which hair analysis was handled by state crime labs. But here’s hoping they will take this as an example, as the Grits for Breakfast blog argues ought to be done in Texas.
For a sense of the damage that sloppy hair analysis and testimony about it has done in prior cases, listen to this NPR story and interview about the case of Dennis Fritz, in Ada, Oklahoma. John Grisham’s nonfiction book “The Innocent Man” is an excellent read about the case.
Maybe this is the beginning of a trend. Hats off to DOJ, the Innocence Project, and NACDL.