The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department (DOJ) admitted to decades of flawed forensic expert witness testimony, potentially affecting 1,500 convictions administered between the 1970’s and 2000. The massive post-conviction review of the FBI’s hair and fiber laboratory began in July, 2012 was designed to test the accuracy of forensic expert analysis at trial, and the early results show a disturbing trend of FBI examiners overstating forensic conclusions to the benefit of federal prosecutors.
Post-Conviction Review Challenges FBI Expert Witnesses
Review of FBI hair and fiber expert testimony began in earnest in 2012 after the Washington Post uncovered evidence suggesting that DOJ and FBI officials were aware for years that flawed forensic analysis contributed to thousands of prosecutions dating back to the 1970s. Although the FBI’s standards for hair and fiber analysis changed in the early 2000’s, information began leaking that analysts at the Bureau were noticing alarming numbers of false positives in DNA identification based on hair and fiber forensic analysis, leading the DOJ to partner with the Innocence Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to conduct a public and transparent review of FBI forensic expert testimony.
The review narrowed its target cases to 2,500 which featured expert analysis of hair and fiber DNA evidence used by prosecutors to convict defendants, and 95% of the 268 reviewed so far indicate errors in FBI forensic expert testimony. The NACDL, Innocence Project, FBI and DOJ have also announced that results of 350 more testimonies and 900 lab reports are complete and may be released within the coming weeks.
Flawed FBI Expert Testimony Aids Federal Prosecutors
An alarming theme across the flawed expert witness testimony is the tendency of FBI forensic experts to overstate the certainty of DNA matches to link defendants to a particular crime scene. Further, FBI experts would support testimony with misleading or incomplete statistical evidence that further strengthened the connection between defendants and the crime scene. Another issue uncovered by the review is the lack of accepted scientific agreement on how hair and fiber analysis should be conducted, and how strong the evidence is as a DNA analysis tool.
Although many legal and political experts are crediting the FBI for its willingness to undertake such a massive review of its forensic expert practices, the disturbing results of the analysis are likely to send a lasting ripple through the federal criminal justice system that could result in thousands of appeals of conviction filed in the coming years.
Results of FBI Expert Witness Review Leave DOJ with Uncertain Future
Response to the negative review of FBI forensic expert witness has been appropriately critical of the investigators in the Bureau and federal prosecutors who made use of the testimony during trial. Leaders of the Innocence Project and the NACDL have denounced the FBI’s hair and fiber lab work as a “disaster,” and have called for action going forward that to not only correct the injustice, but prevent the use of flawed DNA testimony in the future. The sentiment is joined by a number of US Senators who have called the results “appalling and chilling in their indictment of the criminal justice system,” and demanded a “root-cause analysis” to hold the responsible parties accountable.
Beyond the critical response to the review of flawed FBI expert testimony, the logistical concerns facing the DOJ and the federal criminal judiciary are potentially overwhelming. Without question, defendants in each case that has identifiable flaws in DNA expert witness testimony will file an appeal. With much of this testimony offered in cases involving serious criminal charges, some of them involving the death penalty, the convicted defendants are highly motivated to seek reversals of convictions based on faulty expert testimony. While not every case will warrant an appeal, the federal criminal justice system faces an uphill battle in the coming months and years as the full fallout of the FBI expert testimony scandal comes to light.