The last time the FBI abandoned a forensic practice was in 2005, when it ended efforts to trace bullets to a specific manufacturer’s batch through analyzing their chemical composition after its methodology was scientifically debunked. The bureau released files in an estimated 2,500 bullet-lead cases only after “60 Minutes” and The Post reported the problem in 2007.
Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department official who investigated the FBI Laboratory in the mid-1990s as inspector general and, more recently, the city of Houston’s crime lab, said the review is important as the nation’s crime labs come under scrutiny.
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“These recent developments remind us of the profound questions about the validity of many forensic techniques that have been used over the course of many decades and underscore the need for continuing attention at every level to ensuring the scientific validity and accuracy of the forensic science that is used every day in our criminal justice system,” Bromwich said.
The Post reported in April that hair and fiber analysis was subjective and lacked grounding in solid research and that the FBI lab lacked protocols to ensure that agent testimony was scientifically accurate. But bureau managers kept their reviews limited to one agent, even as they learned that many examiners’ “matches” were often wrong and that numerous examiners overstated the significance of matches, using bogus statistics or exaggerated claims.
Details of how the new FBI review will be conducted remain unclear. The exact number of cases that will be reviewed is unknown. The FBI is starting with more than 10,000 cases referred to all hair and fiber examiners. From those, the focus will be on a smaller number of hair examinations that resulted in positive findings and a conviction.
It also is unclear whether the review will focus only on exaggerated testimony by FBI examiners or also on scientifically unfounded statements made by others trained by the FBI, or made by prosecutors. Also unclear is at what point government officials will notify defense attorneys or the Innocence Project.
In past reviews, the department kept results secret and gave findings only to prosecutors, who then determined whether to turn them over to the defense.