Ever since police learned how to pick up and analyze fingerprints from crime scenes for use in identifying and convicting criminal suspects, law enforcement has eagerly adopted technological breakthroughs as opportunities to add to the tools it uses. It may be hard for many to remember that before the advent of DNA testing that can narrow the likelihood of identifying a specific individual down to one in hundreds of millions or even billions of people, police relied on other forms of scientific analysis to assist them in narrowing the suspect list.

From the 1980s until about 2000 (when DNA testing became more prevalent and more accurate), one such “cutting edge” method was the use of hair samples.

The idea behind the use of hair samples was that by subjecting a strand of hair to high-powered magnification, it would be possible to identify distinguishing characteristics within the strand that could be extrapolated to help identify suspects. It is not known during the decades when hair sampling was being used how many criminal defendants were convicted at least partly as a result of such use, but the number could be as high as 1,500 — including some cases which resulted in the imposition of the death penalty against the accused, several of whom have either already been executed or have otherwise died in prison.

But just as technological advances can improve in reliability over time, the opposite is also true. In a remarkable admission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now admitting that hair samples were not so reliable a means of suspect identification, after all. And now it has begun to review cases in which FBI hair analysis experts may have given misleading testimony about how accurate hair samples were in matching suspects.

Some of the salient points have come to light as part of this review:

  • Of 342 cases reviewed so far, 268 used hair sample analysis testimony by FBI experts.
  • Of the 28 FBI hair analysis experts who testified in those 268 cases, only two did not give inaccurate testimony about the subject of their expertise.
  • Of the 268 cases that used hair analysis testimony, 257 are now believed to have received inaccurate forensic evidence testimony, nearly all of which favored the prosecution.

The U.S. Department of Justice is offering DNA testing to help courts that received such inaccurate testimony to go back and review their cases, but this may be a case of too little, too late — especially because it is up to the prosecutors and the courts to request such follow-up testing, and not those who may have been wrongly incarcerated.

Technological advances have led in many cases to better results, notably in the way that they have enabled law enforcement to identify suspects who otherwise would have gone unpunished in an earlier era. But as this recent development shows, technology — particularly pattern-based evidentiary means including bite marks well as hair sample comparisons — should not be taken as a matter of blind faith by prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys or jurors in criminal cases.

If you or a loved one has been charged or accused of violating an Oklahoma criminal law, contact the Hunsucker Legal Group at 405-231-5600 for a free consultation.