The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI will review more than 2,000 criminal convictions in which the FBI used microscopic hair sample analysis that has now been proven to be scientifically invalid. In some cases, hair sample analysis led to convictions of innocent individuals.
The Justice Department and the FBI launched a review after three Black men—Donald Gates, Kirk Odom, and Santae Tribble—all of Washington, D.C., had been convicted of violent crimes and were sentenced to long prison terms based on hair samples found at the individual crime scenes.
Gates, Odom and Tribble, were later exonerated by DNA evidence, which has replaced hair sample evidence, said Paul Cates, a spokesperson for the Innocence Project, which is based in New York.
Before DNA testing was used in criminal trials, prosecutors throughout the country routinely relied on microscopic hair comparison analysis, often provided by the FBI, to link a criminal defendant to a crime.
The practice was deemed “highly unreliable” in a 2009 National Academy of Science report on forensic science, titled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” the Innocence Project said in a statement.
The FBI overstated hair sample evidence to win convictions.
“It is possible to conduct hair microscopy and find similarities among various samples,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “But it appears that in many cases, the FBI was overstating the significance of these similarities, often leaving juries with a false impression that the hair recovered from the crime scene must have come from the defendant and could not have come from anyone else. The government is now acknowledging that this was wrong and that the science does not support such conclusions.”
The Innocence Project uses scientific DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions.
Blacks are the most exonerated.
Since 2000, 311 individuals, including 193 African Americans, 94 Caucasians, 22 Latinos and two Asian Americans, have had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence, according to an Innocence Project fact sheet.
The Innocence Project already has identified that 72 of the 311 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved faulty hair evidence.
The Innocence Project announced in July the historic agreement to review the cases that were processed by the FBI between 1985 and 2000.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and pro bono lawyers also are participating in the case reviews. The cases involve an undisclosed number of FBI agents who testified that hair samples found at the crime scenes pointed to one individual, excluding all others.
An FBI agent testified that Santae Tribble’s hair fibers were found at the murder scene, but DNA evidence excluded the hair fibers as Tribble’s. DNA also found that one of the hair fibers used to convict Tribble was a dog’s hair.
The Innocence Project, NACDL, and pro bono partners worked for more than a year with the FBI and the Justice Department to determine the scope and protocols and implementation of the review that will cover the more than 2,000 cases during the specified time period plus any number of unknown cases processed in preceding years.