The rot goes all the way to the top


It’s dismaying to see law enforcement in this country exposed as a gang of thugs abusing the rights of citizens — we have a militarized police force that basically executes people they don’t like. Now we learn that even if they survive arrest, suspects will get railroaded straight into a conviction by biased crime labs. The latest culprit: the FBI has been jiggering hair analysis results for decades.

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

Yesterday, I addressed a pompous twit who declared that SJWs were undermining the idea that everyone was presumed innocent until proven guilty — perhaps he needs to spend a little more time contemplating the FBI, because they’re clearly in the business of inventing evidence to ‘prove’ guilt.

And this stuff has consequences.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

Scientists may have contributed to the problem by inaction, too. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen forensic science turned into cheesy entertainment with the rise of these CSI-style shows, where science is turned into a magic instrument that infallibly determines guilt or innocence. I’ve watched these things and laughed: they routinely make difficult analyses look easy and fast, and turn ambiguous evidence into certainty. They’ve propagated a myth that the science always works and always has the right answer, and they’ve played right into the hands of crooked cops and lawyers who want to dazzle juries and judges with incomprehensible technical detail that can be spun into the verdict they want.

Those shows are complete garbage, and we ought to be saying so more often.


  1. Doug Hudson says

    “The FBI has been jiggering hair analysis results…” I bet they have!

    Beautiful pun there, though perhaps a tad unfortunate. [in case you didn’t know, “jig” and “jigger” are racial slurs for blacks.]

    Not to detract from the article, which is important, but that sentence is really striking.

  2. rq says

    Forensic scientists have been complaining about this, though perhaps not loudly enough.
    But ordinary people tend not to listen. Similar to any science that isn’t shiny and covered in flashing buttons and mood lighting.
    It makes me sad, though, because one of the fundamental things that I was taught at forensic science school is that the expert/specialist is on the side of science, not for or against a particular conviction. To be as impartial as humanly possible – either side can call a specialist, and the specialist says whether, in their opinion, the evidence is more likely to support one hypothesis or another. But they must be able to answer to all possibilities if asked, and not necessarily emphasize one over the other.
    In short, a forensic specialist in court isn’t allowed to have an opinion on the innocence or guilt of the accused, just on the utility of the evidence in support of one hypothesis or another.

    And apparently this is not how it works in real life. Sadly.

  3. davidnangle says

    I guess they don’t want to imagine a half million dollars of microscope or mass spectrometer to help out a suspect. Ever. Even if it means a real killer goes free.

    Today’s cops would rather let all killers and rapists and thieves go free, if it only meant 100% convictions on the black men they chose to blame for the crimes.

  4. The Mellow Monkey says

    Absolutely horrifying and yet not entirely surprising. FBI forensic units are still working for the FBI and still subject to pressure from that organization. It doesn’t take a conspiracy or overt malice for things to go wrong. Just the knowledge that, geez, a lot of our people worked on this case they really, really need this analysis to go their way. Obviously, our agents are right and we just need to show that… Ugh.

    Tangentially, Dr. Killgrove’s recaps of Bones are the best things to come out of forensic “science” on TV. It certainly isn’t the actual shows themselves.

  5. Menyambal says

    Yeah, high schools are giving classes in forensic science now, to kids who grew up on the shows. I worry that there are going to be ‘way too many forensic-ers than needed, with some never learning that it isn’t magic.

    Lie detectors are bull, also. There is no science to them, no clear and repeatable results. They just jiggle needles and impress the chumps, while the operator makes a decision based on their own emotions.

  6. rq says

    Lie detectors have also been officially discredited for years – it’s amazing that they’re even still used, and that actual conclusions are still drawn from them. :( Museum, is where that one belongs.

    The Mellow Monkey
    Oh, thanks for that link! I think I’m going to have meself some fun later tonight, with that.

  7. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    Without DNA, the most that can be said about a hair is that:
    1. This hair did not come from the suspect.
    2. We cannot show that this hair did not come from the suspect.

    The hair can be ruled out, but it can’t be ruled in. To get around that, prosecutors elicit testimony like “this hair is consistent with the defendant’s” which juries interpret as a match when it means no such thing. Part of the problem is with the juries’ faith in they system.

  8. says

    Having the expert attached to the FBI ought to have strained credibility all along, especially after COINTELPRO and the FBI’s less than wholesome involvement in creating most of the domestic “terror” plots since 9/11.

    The FBI needs to be burned to the ground and replaced with an agency that is much less skilled, much more diligent, and much much less well-armed.

  9. jackrousseau says

    If you think that hair matching involves a lot of bullshit, then you’ll be pissed about bite mark matching too: (Pt. 4, the first three are linked).

    Very few “forensic sciences” are actually scientific or replicable. DNA is good, but bullet lead analysis, hair/fibre matching, bite mark matching, and even fingerprinting range from “100% bullshit” to “not reliable enough to lock someone away with”.

  10. anteprepro says

    Doug Hudson: “Jig”, a common word with multiple meanings, only has a meaning of a racial slur when it is used as shorthand for this word . This is alluded to below the definition you are referring to. “Jigger” also has multiple definitions and also does not appear to be a racial slur itself either, unless intentionally used again as an allusion to the actual racial slur (and possibly merged with yet another one).

    So I agree that the word should be used cautiously, but it isn’t the same as being a full-fledged racial slur in itself.

  11. pHred いつでも今日が、いちばん楽しい日 says

    Seconding rq, lots of us have been complaining about this – sometimes quite loudly (at the meetings that I have been at) – for years. I have written papers about it. I have argued with people at the FBI about it.

    From my perspective – a) the system is way too insular and doesn’t like it when anyone suggests checks and balances or points out problems.

    b) unless you are working in DNA it is virtually impossible to get funding. Trace evidence etc. And not just for things that we could potentially demonstrate don’t work, but even for things that do work but are perceived as “too complicated for a jury.” Or “too marginal” whatever the hell that means. Just ARGH!

    Some friends of my have been working on dismantling the “bite mark” nonsense for years now (at least 8). At least that “expert” who claimed to be able to tell height, weight, gender and possibly hair and eye color simply from footprints has been throughly discredited.

  12. Doug Hudson says

    anteprepro @14

    Hell, I’m not offended, nor do I think that PZ meant it as a racial slur.

    But in a society where law enforcement frequently frames black men, the use of the word “jigger” to describe a situation where law enforcement was altering test results to frame defendants strikes me as quite apropos.

    Like I said, a nice pun, though perhaps a tad unfortunate and probably unintentional.

  13. anteprepro says

    Doug Hudson: I suppose I agree then, though I wouldn’t describe the possible unintentional pun as “nice”. The words depressing and ironic do come to mind though.


    Yesterday, I addressed a pompous twit who declared that SJWs were undermining the idea that everyone was presumed innocent until proven guilty — perhaps he needs to spend a little more time contemplating the FBI, because they’re clearly in the business of inventing evidence to ‘prove’ guilt.

    The thing is, the anti-SJW brigade are all seem to very much lean white conservative male. They tend to only care about false convictions if it involves a straight white male, especially if it concerns conviction for rape. But they seem to not give a shit otherwise. The Innocence Project? The fucking death penalty for people convicted on evidence that was later overturned? Disproportionate arrests, imprisonment, and police brutality facing minorities? All things that would be considered SJW issues and spat upon in contempt. Things that they give a shit about. Unless it involves someone getting punished for rape. That’s about it.

  14. Doug Hudson says

    antepropo @18, sorry, I was indulging my very dark sense of humor. Which is probably why I saw the connection in the first place, actually. But yeah, it is bitterly ironic, especially since racism probably is at least part of the reason for the tampering.

  15. says

    How common is polygraph usage outside North America? I was under the impression it was primarily an American thing, and to a lesser extent a Canadian one.

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Absolutely horrifying and yet not entirely surprising. FBI forensic units are still working for the FBI and still subject to pressure from that organization. It doesn’t take a conspiracy or overt malice for things to go wrong. Just the knowledge that, geez, a lot of our people worked on this case they really, really need this analysis to go their way. Obviously, our agents are right and we just need to show that … Ugh.

    I agree with your “ugh”. To give the FBI some ‘slack’, I can see that they are super paranoid about letting a guilty man go free to continue their “mayhem” on all the, “good citizens” the FBI is oathbound to #protect#. That pressure, to absolutely provide evidence to convict the wrongdoer, can result in sloppy work; not necessarily, fraudulent misdirection, to intentionally convict the first person that was brought in to convict.
    But that may be too much slack. The FBI needs to be slapped, hard, for doing such sloppy work for so long. Even if it was just attempting to please, and not deliberate malevolence, either way, unacceptable. FBI can do better than that. FBI, show us how skilled your forensics really are, It’s okay if it takes a little longer to do the work more rigorously. What was that about “better to let 10 guilties go, than convict one innocent”? Your shoddy work has been convicting innocents. Get better.

  17. Pteryxx says

    for puns:

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), urged the bureau to conduct “a root-cause analysis” to prevent future breakdowns.


    For what it’s worth, the next step needs to be pressuring states to make appeals and reviews more viable.

    University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett said the results reveal a “mass disaster” inside the criminal justice system, one that it has been unable to self-correct because courts rely on outdated precedents admitting scientifically invalid testimony at trial and, under the legal doctrine of finality, make it difficult for convicts to challenge old evidence.

    “The tools don’t exist to handle systematic errors in our criminal justice system,” Garrett said. “The FBI deserves every recognition for doing something really remarkable here. The problem is there may be few judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers who are able or willing to do anything about it.”

    Federal authorities are offering new DNA testing in cases with errors, if sought by a judge or prosecutor, and agreeing to drop procedural objections to appeals in federal cases.

    However, biological evidence in the cases often is lost or unavailable. Among states, only California and Texas specifically allow appeals when experts recant or scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial.

    Defense attorneys say scientifically invalid forensic testimony should be considered as violations of due process, as courts have held with false or misleading testimony.

  18. says

    The more I think of it, the more amazed I am that the evidence labs are part of the agency prosecuting the accused. That seems utterly inappropriate. If there’s one place where I unreservedly support government privatization, this would be it!

  19. says

    The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison

    Jesus Fucking Wept. This is beyond horrible, and it should be beyond acceptable, but it isn’t. I expect too many people would just shrug their shoulders and say something like “well, a jury found them guilty, so they must be guilty.”

  20. Pteryxx says

    Wouldn’t simple double-blinding have been sufficient to stop the prosecution-favoring bias *and* demonstrate the unreliability of the techniques? ‘Compare A, B, C, D, E’ rather than ‘assailant 1, assailant 2, suspect, victim’. No matter how good the forensic “experts” think they are, they couldn’t have produced such skewed results without knowing what results to produce.

  21. zenlike says

    timgueguen @20

    How common is polygraph usage outside North America? I was under the impression it was primarily an American thing, and to a lesser extent a Canadian one.

    At least in my little part of Europe it is sometimes used in high profile cases, and the media, lawyers and judiciary system generally seem to uncritically accept it as a working technology.

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) @21

    Your shoddy work has been convicting innocents. Get better.

    Your shoddy work has let to the deaths of people (maybe innocents being executed, or the wrong guy being convicted meaning the real perps could continue their crimes).

    Marcus Ranum @23

    If there’s one place where I unreservedly support government privatization, this would be it!

    Wasn’t there some news coverage a year ago or so of shoddy work in private labes leading to false convictions? I don’t think privatisation is the way to go. A clear seggragation of duties with strict follow up and real punishments for the people involved when they fuck up seems to me to be the only way to go.

  22. Pteryxx says

    If anything, privatization would lead to *fewer* safeguards vs. civil rights – look at what it’s done for drug testing of job applicants and welfare recipients, prison and probation systems, and military mercenaries.

    Whatever a better system might be, it has to start with a separation of the supposed “innocent until proven guilty” legal process from the drive to grind out convictions. Investigation can’t be beholden to prosecution, whether or not they’re under the same roof.

  23. doublereed says

    @8 Menyambal

    Lie Detectors aren’t admissible evidence or anything. They are more used for intimidation purposes than for actually figuring out if a person is lying.

  24. doublereed says

    Remember, cops can lie to you and use all sorts of tricks to intimidate you. If they hook you up to a lie detector, they could say “huh, it says here you’re lying” when the detector says no such thing. It’s all about intimidation.

  25. Pteryxx says

    Seconding jackrousseau #13 – that WaPo series on bite mark analysis makes for highly relevant reading, even though it’s about a different technique. From the concluding article in the series: WaPo

    There are at least a few hopeful signs that some policymakers are taking notice of the effects of bad forensics. After the California Supreme Court ruling in the Richards case, the state’s legislature passed a law that makes it easier for inmates to challenge convictions based on bad science. William Richards is now mounting another challenge to his conviction under the new law.

    Texas also recently passed a “junk science” law, mostly in response to the faux-arson science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham. And a federal judge in Wisconsin recently issued a well-informed opinion striking down a conviction based on handwriting analysis.

    But these instances have been few and far between, especially in the courts. Michael Saks says it all goes back to asking judges to be the gatekeepers of science. He suggests a sort of national forensics panel that would evaluate new and existing forensic specialties and decide which have sufficient scientific support to be allowed in the courtroom. “We need to move outside the courts,” he says. “Look at these forensic areas that even the government now admits have been discredited. Bullet lead composition, voice print analysis, and so on. The courts had been letting this stuff in for years. It took declarations from the scientific community to put at an end to it. What does that tell us? It tells us that these decision shouldn’t be made by judges.” Edwards seems to agree. In a speech last year, he cautioned that “Judicial review, by itself, will not cure the infirmities of the forensic community.”

    And this should sound familiar to anyone following the police brutality cover-ups and the America threads:

    What troubles critics such as Fabricant most is that all this talk about moving forward cavalierly glosses over what has already happened. Even if you believe the current promises from the forensics communities that things are better now, if you don’t change the structural failures that allowed bad science to convict innocent people in the first place, it’s almost certain to happen again.

    But there’s also plenty of reason to question those assurances that things are better now. “The ABFO [American Board of Forensic Odontology] just dismisses these innocence cases as rogue examiners, or artifacts from a bygone era,” Fabricant says. “But they did immeasurable damage, not just to human lives, but to our jurisprudence. Where is the accounting for that? Where is the acknowledgment? Where is the reckoning?”

    With the exception of West, the ABFO has never suspended or disciplined one of its members, even when their analysis contributed to a wrongful arrest or conviction. Several who have participated in such injustices are today outspoken advocates or hold leadership positions within the organization. For example, in 1998, bite mark matching by Franklin Wright helped convict Ohio police officer Douglass Prade of killing his wife. But in 2010, DNA testing on saliva taken from the bite mark excluded Prade. An Ohio judge gave Prade a new trial and released him before an appeals court overruled her and ordered Prade back to prison. Today, Wright serves on several ABFO committees, including the ethics, bite mark evidence and proficiency testing committees.

    And the larger forensics community isn’t exactly showing bite mark analysts the door. The absurd AAFS [American Academy of Forensic Sciences] ethics hearing on Michael Bowers is a pretty good indication of that. (Note: After this series began on Friday, the AAFS board of directors voted to dismiss the ethics complaint against Bowers, overriding the recommendation of the organization’s ethics committee. Bowers says the cost of his legal defense topped $100,000.)

    The theme of this year’s AAFS conference is “Celebrating the Forensic Science Family,” which feels like a plea for unity in a field under criticism. The event features at least eight panels focusing on bite mark evidence, plus the annual “Bitemark Breakfast,” with remarks by ABFO Vice President Adam Freeman and Jeffrey Ashton, prosecutor in the Casey Anthony case. (In conjunction with the conference, for $700 the ABFO is also offering a one-day course in bite mark analysis. Completion of the course will get you one credit in bite mark analysis toward qualification to take the group’s certification exam.)


    More troubling is that the federal reform apparatus put in place in the wake of the NAS report may have already been captured by the bite mark practitioners. Last October, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the members of the subcommittee working group that would be studying the scientific validity of forensic odontology. Ten of the 16 members are either practicing bite mark analysts or people who have openly advocated the practice.

    Reading this, I think it’s a mistake to focus on the FBI as the (sole) source of the problem here. They’re a policing organization, so they’re subject to the same prosecution bias and great-white-savior syndrome as any other law enforcement organization in the US, but as a community interested in science, its process and its ethics, and especially in revealing pseudoscience, we sciencey folks should also focus on this corruption closer to home. The FBI’s in the spotlight right now *because* they’ve instituted a full review of their practices in response to criticism, and while that’s a very basic beginning step, it’s still something the sub-disciplines of forensic science seem unwilling to do.

  26. dmcclean says

    Polygraph tests aren’t admissible evidence in the US, IIRC. People still use them, though, for stuff outside the courtroom.
    They might as well throw rocks at glass bottles and wait for the Giant Man from the Red Curtain Room to give them clues.

    The latter method may not tell you much, but the things it does tell you will not be wrong.

  27. Eric O says

    When I was doing my archaeology undergrad, I took a course in forensic anthropology and my main take-away was this:

    It’s potentially useful, but as with anything, there’s always a margin of error that has to be considered. Police, prosecutors, juries, and the general public have a tendency to think that forensic conclusions are definitive, and for ethical forensic scientists, this can be frustrating, especially when they’re put on the stand and have to present their conclusions (there was a brief section in my class about how to handle oneself in a courtroom setting and trying not to fall for rhetorical traps set by lawyers that could be used to distort your findings). Of course, for unethical forensic investigators, this is an attitude that can be exploited for personal gain.

    Looking back on it, a large chunk of that class was about ethics. I wonder if that’s a common theme when teaching forensics or if my prof was just exceptionally conscientious.

  28. Funny Diva says

    TMM @6:

    Hey, thanks for THAT!
    Now I can catch up on episode summaries AND get the snarky, real-science critique of that show! In my oh-so-copious spare time, natch!

    As somebody who works “at the bench”, albeit not in a forensics laboratory, my pet peeve with all the CSI franchises has always been “TURN ON THE F*CKING LIGHTS, YOU DOOFUSES! HOW CAN YOU EVEN SEE TO WORK?!”
    Don’t even get me started on how designers “dress” a laboratory set with totally random, “sciency” stuff that has nothing to do with the putative work supposedly being done…

  29. grumpyoldfart says

    I’ll bet no innocent party gets their sentence overturned until they sign away their right to sue for cash compensation.

    The land of the free and the home of the brave. (Not always. Not for everyone.)

  30. sigurd jorsalfar says

    Those who are comparing this to polygraphs need to keep in mind that polygraph evidence isn’t admissible in court, but this hair analysis is.

  31. chris61 says

    @36 grumpyoldfart

    I’ll bet no innocent party gets their sentence overturned until they sign away their right to sue for cash compensation.</blockquote.

    Not true. According to the innocence project many of the exonerated have won financial compensation via civil suits.

  32. rq says

    sigurd @37
    Actually, read here and here. They may be generally less admissible, but they are not inadmissible. Hair evidence might be perceived as more scientifically sound, but the polygraph can still influence court decisions in some states.
    In other words, the polygraph, as debunked as it is, can still be used against someone in court, so I think the comparison with hair analysis is valid.

  33. neuroturtle says

    Funny Diva @35
    Right! Where are all the pipette tip boxes?? The absorbent stuff taped to the bench covered in splotches of trizol? And button your damn lab coats!!
    I did notice they use Eppendorf pipetters in CSI. And their centrifuge is more expensive than mine. So maybe they peeked into a lab through the window once.

  34. rq says

    Their centrifuge is magic, actually. We want at least one at our lab. Does it come with dim lighting? Or is the dim lighting due to the energy consumption of the magic machines?