Criminal Justice

Review Found FBI Hair Analysis Flaws in 250 Cases, But DOJ Didn't Inform Defendants and Public


An inspector general’s nine-year review of misconduct at the FBI crime lab found forensic flaws in hair analysis, but the results of the probe that ended in 2004 were revealed only to prosecutors.

The Justice Department did not separately inform defendants whose cases could be affected, including one Maryland man serving a life sentence for a 1981 double killing, the Washington Post reports. Lawyers for the defendant, John Norman Huffington, learned of forensic problems through the newspaper. Prosecutors disclosed problems to the defense in fewer than half of the 250 cases in which questions were raised.

The review found that FBI experts exaggerated the reliability of hair comparisons, sometimes citing false statistics indicating a false match was unlikely.

According to the Post, hundreds of defendants are still in prison or on parole for crimes in which FBI hair and fiber experts may have wrongly identified them as suspects. And the review of hair evidence issues focused on just one FBI agent while ignoring other problems that may have led to false evidence matches, the story says.

Justice Department officials maintain they fulfilled their legal obligations by telling prosecutors of errors and they did not need to directly contact defendants.

DNA tests this year in two Washington, D.C., cases virtually clear a man convicted of killing a taxi driver in 1978 and completely clear a man convicted of a 1981 sexual assault. Both prosecutions relied on evidence of hair matches. But the cases weren’t included in the crime lab review. The Post has a separate story on one of the defendants, Santae Tribble, who was arrested at 17 and served 28 years in prison after his conviction.

The review came too late in another case, the Post investigation found. According to a prosecution memo, Benjamin Herbert Boyle would not have been eligible for the death penalty because of problems in the FBI lab work. He was executed in 1997, a year after the investigation of the lab began.

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