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FBI’s Forensic Crime Lab Under Review

After our recent blog posts about forensic labs across the country, maybe you thought, well, it is a problem, but these are all crime labs in smaller jurisdictions. They’re not necessarily going to be able to hire the best chemists and forensic scientists in the country. They have budget restraints. So yeah, we definitely need to have more oversight and scientific reliability, but at least the most serious federal cases are being handled by top notch crime labs.

There’s a reason that the Department of Justice and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have created the National Commission on Forensic Science: even the nation’s most prestigious crime labs are plagued with problems. The Washington Post’s recent article “Federal Review Stalled after Finding Forensic Errors by FBI Lab Unit Spanned Two Decades” notes that “nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department . . . has included flawed forensic testimony” from the FBI lab. After a year-long hiatus spent trying to determine the “appropriate scientific standards” that should be used in the assessment, the two departments have recently resumed their review of criminal convictions, some of which date back to 1985, to see whether faulty forensic evidence from hair and fiber analysis played a part.

The FBI crime lab in question conducts more hair examinations and analyses than any other crime lab and testifies in cases across the country, and the practices and testimonies are often what secure convictions. In Santae A. Tribble’s case, he spent 28 years in prison because of the testimony of FBI hair analysts, now found to be unreliable. The primary problem is that there is “no accepted research on how often hair from different people may appear the same,” yet the analysts’ testimonies are asserting “claims to associate a hair with a single person ‘to the exclusion of all others.’”

This should cause serious concern.

What should cause even more concern is that this same department of FBI forensic examiners was already the source of a 1997 investigation, and Michael Bromwich, the inspector general during that time notes “the [latest] report doesn’t give anyone a sense of confidence that the work of the examiners . . . was reviewed as diligently and promptly as it needed to be.” Discouragingly, this mirrors the doubt that we at azdui.com have with the current lab “accreditation” system. Even the crime labs reviewed and accredited by ASCLD-LAB can have serious problems with the execution of their methodologies, and accreditation does not review the testimonies of analysts on the witness stand in trials. So how diligent and thorough can these reviews actually be?

In a previous article, Bromwich declared that these current problems demonstrate “the need for continuing attention at every level to ensur[e] the scientific validity and accuracy of the forensic science that is used every day in our criminal justice system.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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