FBI forensic evidence unit botched decades of testimony

A recent admission from the Justice Department and FBI have called into question the misuse of forensic evidence in criminal courts. The Washington Post broke the story this past month:

“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.”

Hair sample

The misrepresentation of hair recognition technology under oath include 32 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death.

An incredulous Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: “The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about.”

The case once again highlights pervasive assumptions that science and scientists are necessarily¬†objective, operating outside of social/cultural biases or political pressures. The interplay of scientific practice, politics, and power is often times much more complicated, as eugenics history demonstrates. While refraining from simplistic “science bashing,” these historical and contemporary revelations urge the general public to better interrogate the motivations behind the presentation of scientific “fact.”

The FBI revelation also calls to mind the very different use of hair as an identifying characteristic during the American eugenics movement – in attempts to characterize biologically distinct racial groups through analysis of hair structure.


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