In Tribble’s case, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further as he summed up the evidence. “There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair,” he said in his closing arguments, sounding the final word for the government.
Stanley declined to comment.
Flaws known for decades
The Tribble and Odom cases demonstrate problems in hair analysis that have been known for nearly 40 years.
In 1974, researchers acknowledged that visual comparisons are so subjective that different analysts can reach different conclusions about the same hair. The FBI acknowledged in 1984 that such analysis cannot positively determine that a hair found at a crime scene belongs to one particular person.
In 1996, the Justice Department studied the nation’s first 28 DNA exonerations and found that 20 percent of the cases involved hair comparison. That same year, the FBI lab stopped declaring matches based on visual comparisons alone and began requiring DNA testing as well.
Yet examples of FBI experts violating scientific standards and making exaggerated or erroneous claims emerged in 1997 at the heart of the FBI lab’s worst modern scandal, when Bromwich’s investigation found systematic problems involving 13 agents. The lab’s lack of written protocols and examiners’ weak scientific qualifications allowed bias to influence some of the nation’s highest-profile criminal investigations, the inspector general said.
From 1996 through 2004, a Justice Department task force set out to review about 6,000 cases handled by the 13 discredited agents for any potential exculpatory information that should be disclosed to defendants. The task force identified more than 250 convictions in which the agents’ work was determined to be either critical to the conviction or so problematic — for example, because a prosecutor refused to cooperate or records had been lost — that it completed a fresh scientific assessment of the agent’s work. The task force was directed to notify prosecutors of the results.
The only real notice of what the task force found came in a 2003 Associated Press account in which unnamed government officials said they had turned over results to prosecutors and were aware that defendants had been notified in 100 to 150 cases. The officials left the impression that anybody whose case had been affected had been notified and that, in any case, no convictions had been overturned, the officials said.
But since 2003, in the District alone, two of six convictions identified by The Post in which forensic work was reassessed by the task force have been vacated. That includes Gates’s case, but not those of Tribble and Odom, who are awaiting court action and were not part of the task force review.
The Gates exoneration also shows that prosecutors failed to turn over information uncovered by the task force.
In addition to Gates, the murder cases in Texas and Maryland and a third in Alaska reveal examples of shortcomings.
All three cases, in addition to the District cases, were handled by FBI agent Malone, whose cases made up more than 90 percent of scientific reviews found by The Post.
In Texas, the review of Benjamin Herbert Boyle’s case got underway only after the defendant was executed, 16 months after the task force was formed, despite pledges to prioritize death penalty cases.
Boyle was executed six days after the Bromwich investigation publicly criticized Malone, the FBI agent who worked on his case, but the FBI had acknowledged two months earlier that it was investigating complaints about him.
The task force asked the Justice Department’s capital-case review unit to look over its work, but the fact that it failed to prevent the execution was never publicized.
In Maryland, John Norman Huffington’s attorneys say they were never notified of the findings of the review in his case, leaving them in a battle over the law’s unsettled requirements for prosecutors to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence and over whether lawyers and courts can properly interpret scientific findings.
In Alaska, Newton P. Lambert’s defenders have been left to seek DNA testing of remaining biological evidence, if any exists, while he serves a life sentence for a 1982 murder. Prosecutors for both Huffington and Lambert claim they disclosed findings at some point to other lawyers but failed to document doing so. In Lambert’s case, The Post found that the purported notification went to a lawyer who had died.
Senior public defenders in both states say they received no such word, which they say would be highly unlikely if it in fact came.
Malone, 66, said he was simply using the best science available at the time. “We did the best we could with what we had,” he said.
Even the harshest critics acknowledge that the Justice Department worked hard to identify potentially tainted convictions. Many of the cases identified by the task force involved serious crimes, and several defendants confessed or were guilty of related charges. Courts also have upheld several convictions even after agents’ roles were discovered.
Flawed agents or a flawed system?
Because of the focus on Malone, many questionable cases were never reviewed.
But as in the Tribble and Odom cases, thousands of defendants nationwide have been implicated by other FBI agents, as well as state and local hair examiners, who relied on the same flawed techniques.
In 2002, the FBI found after it analyzed DNA in 80 selected hair cases that its agents had reported false matches more than 11 percent of the time. “I don’t believe forensic science truly understood the significance of microscopic hair comparison, and it wasn’t until [DNA] that we learned that 11 percent of the time, two hairs can be microscopically similar yet come from different people,” said Dwight E. Adams, who directed the FBI lab from 2002 to 2006.
Yet a Post review of the small fraction of cases in which an appeals court opinion describes FBI hair testimony shows that several FBI agents gave improper testimony, asserting the remote odds of a false match or invoking bogus statistics in the absence of data.
For example, in testimony in a Minnesota bank robbery case, also in 1978, Hilverda, the agent who worked on Tribble’s case, reiterated that he had been unable to distinguish among different people’s hair “only on a couple of occasions” out of more than 2,000 cases he had analyzed.
In a 1980 Indiana robbery case, an agent told jurors that he had failed to tell different people’s hair apart just once in 1,500 cases. After a slaying in Tennessee that year, another agent testified in a capital case that there was only one chance out of 4,500 or 5,000 that a hair came from someone other than the suspect.
“Those statements are chilling to read,” Bromwich said of the exaggerated FBI claims at trial.
Todd, the FBI spokeswoman, said bureau lab reports for more than 30 years have qualified their findings by saying that hair comparisons are not a means of absolute positive identification. She requested a list of cases in which agents departed from guidelines in court. The Post provided nine cases.
Todd declined to say whether the bureau considered taking steps to determine whether other agents intentionally or unintentionally misled jurors. “Only Michael Malone’s conduct was questioned in the area of hair comparisons,” Todd said. “The [inspector general] did not question the merits of microscopic hair comparisons as a scientific discipline.”
Experts say the difference between laboratory standards and examiners’ testimony in court can be important, especially if no one is reading or watching what agents say.
“It seemingly has never been routine for crime labs to do supervision based on trial testimony,” said University of Virginia School of Law professor Brandon L. Garrett. “You can have cautious standards, but if no one is supervising their implementation, it’s predictable that analysts may cross the line.”
‘Veil of secrecy’
A review of the task force documents, as well as Post interviews, found that the Justice Department struggled to balance its roles as a law enforcer defending convictions, a minister of justice protecting the innocent, and a patron and practitioner of forensic science.
By excluding defense lawyers from the process and leaving it to prosecutors to decide case by case what to disclose, authorities waded into a legal and ethical morass that left some prisoners locked away for years longer than necessary. By adopting a secret process that limited accountability, documents show, the task force left the scope and nature of scientific problems unreported, obscuring issues from further study and permitting similar breakdowns.
“The government has hidden behind the veil of secrecy to shield these abuses despite official assurances that justice would be done,” said David Colapinto, general counsel of the National Whistleblowers Center.
The American Bar Association and others have proposed stronger ethics rules for prosecutors to act on information that casts doubt on convictions; opening laboratory and other files to the defense; clearer reporting and evidence retention; greater involvement by scientists in setting rules for testimony at criminal trials; and more scientific training for lawyers and judges.
Other experts propose more oversight by standing state forensic-science commissions and funding for research into forensic techniques and experts for indigent defendants.
A common theme among reform-minded lawyers and experts is taking the oversight of the forensic labs away from police and prosecutors.
“It’s human to make mistakes,” said Steven D. Benjamin, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s wrong not to learn from them.”
More specifically, the D.C. Public Defender Service, Benjamin’s group and others said justice would be served by retesting hair evidence in convictions nationwide from 1996 and earlier. “If microscopic hair analysis was a key piece of evidence in a conviction, and it was one of only a limited amount of evidence in a case, would it be worthwhile to retest that using mitochondrial DNA? I would say absolutely,” said Adams, the former FBI lab director.
The promised review by federal prosecutors of hair convictions in the District would not include cases before 1985, when FBI records were computerized, and would not disclose any defendant’s name. That approach would have missed Gates, Odom and Tribble, who were convicted earlier.
Representatives for Machen, the FBI and the Justice Department also declined to say why the review should be limited to D.C. cases. The Post found that 95 percent of the troubled cases identified by the task force were outside the District.
Avis E. Buchanan, director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, said her agency must be “a full participant” in the review, which it has sought for two years, and that it should extend nationwide. “Surely the District of Columbia is not the only place where such flawed evidence was used to convict the innocent,” she said.
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins and database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.