In July, the Justice Department announced a nationwide review of all cases handled by the FBI Laboratory’s hair and fibers unit before 2000 — at least 21,000 cases — to determine whether improper lab reports or testimony might have contributed to wrongful convictions.
But about three dozen FBI agents trained 600 to 1,000 state and local examiners to apply the same standards that have proved problematic.
None of the local cases is included in the federal review. As a result, legal experts say, although the federal inquiry is laudable, the number of flawed cases at the state and local levels could be even higher, and those are going uncorrected.
The FBI review was prompted by a series of articles in The Washington Post about errors at the bureau’s renowned crime lab involving microscopic hair comparisons. The articles highlighted the cases of two District men who each spent more than 20 years in prison based on false hair matches by FBI experts. Since The Post’s articles, the men have been declared innocent by D.C. Superior Court judges.
Two high-profile local-level cases illustrate how far the FBI training problems spread.
In 2004, former Montana crime lab director Arnold Melnikoff was fired and more than 700 cases questioned because of what reviewers called egregious scientific errors involving the accuracy of hair matches dating to the 1970s. His defense was that he was taught by the FBI and that many FBI-trained colleagues testified in similar ways, according to previously undisclosed court records.
In 2001, Oklahoma City police crime lab supervisor Joyce Gilchrist lost her job and more than 1,400 of her cases were questioned after an FBI reviewer found that she made claims about her matches that were “beyond the acceptable limits of science.” Court filings show that Gilchrist received her only in-depth instruction in hair comparison from the FBI in 1981 and that she, like many practitioners, went largely unsupervised.
Federal officials, asked about state and local problems, said the FBI has committed significant resources to speed the federal review but that state and local police and prosecutors would have to decide whether to undertake comparable efforts.
FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd defended the training of local examiners as “continuing education” intended to supplement formal training provided by other labs. The FBI did not qualify examiners, a responsibility shared by individual labs and certification bodies, she said.
Michael Wright, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said local prosecutors cannot simply order labs to audit all or even a sample of cases handled by FBI-trained examiners, because such an undertaking might be time- and cost-prohibitive for smaller agencies.