A new task force has been formed in Arizona, consisting of representatives from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the Phoenix crime lab, the Arizona Justice Project and ASU Law School. The purpose of the task force is to examine the use of hair evidence in criminal cases, which evidence has led to a host of wrongful convictions.
In the area of criminal investigations, much has changed over the past decades. Many years ago, when forensics were in their infancy, and even before, it was thought by many that the central aspect of determining guilt or innocence usually rested on eyewitness testimony. Over the years, however, and with the benefit of new investigative techniques, we’ve learned that eyewitness testimony often consists of eyewitness misidentification. In fact, according to a well-known study, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest factor contributing to wrongful convictions.
The problems with convicting the wrong person of a crime based upon evidence obtained through faulty investigations was naturally expected to decrease substantially with the expansion of forensic science. You would expect the use of this scientific evidence to lead to an increase in the accuracy of criminal investigations, and a corresponding plummeting of the number of cases in which faulty evidence leads to wrongful convictions. This was particularly true with the advent of DNA analysis, which was first admitted into evidence in a United States criminal case in 1986.
One of the problems with scientific evidence, however, is that it seems to carry weight that in some cases is out of proportion to its value as an investigative tool. Mention the words “scientific evidence,” and many conclude that the evidence must be accurate. But in some cases, the accuracy and the value of this evidence can be overstated, leading to the conviction of innocent people.
Hair Evidence Said to be Flawed in 90% of Cases
Several years ago, the FBI conducted a study of microscopic hair analysis in criminal cases between 2012 and 2015. The study led to an FBI press release which stated, shockingly, that in 90% of the cases in which hair analysis was used, the analysis and/or the accompanying testimony contained errors. The task force is now reviewing cases to determine which defendants may have been convicted based upon this faulty science.
Participants in the project say that the identification and review of applicable cases is a long process, and no date has been set for the expected conclusion of that review.
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