After FBI Admits Hair Testimony Flaws, Leahy Renews Forensic Reform Call


After federal officials acknowledged that nearly an entire unit of FBI forensic examiners overstated testimony about hair matches for decades, the question now is how courts and prosecutors will respond to criminal convictions that may have relied on such evidence, the Washington Post reports. A sampling of cases in Massachusetts and North Carolina shows the challenges facing convicts seeking to appeal. Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the top Democrats on the Senate judiciary and House science committees, called on Congress to pass forensic-science reforms to hold examiners to the highest standards. “This kind of gross misconduct simply cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system,” Leahy said.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers are being notified to determine if the outcome of cases hinged on the problem testimony. The FBI has offered new DNA testing, and the Justice Department will drop procedural objections to appeals in federal cases. The picture is different in state cases, where most errors occurred. Biological evidence in these cases often is lost, destroyed or degraded. Only California and Texas specifically allow appeals when experts recant or when scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial. The Innocence Project, which along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers participated in the federal review, argues that scientifically invalid forensic testimony should be considered a violation of due process and grounds for appeal, as courts have held with false or misleading testimony.

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