FBI announces review of thousands of criminal conviction

Earlier this summer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it was spearheading the review of thousands of criminal convictions that were secured in part due to hair sample evidence. The cases under review run the gamut from drug crimes to murder - some even involving the death penalty. Overall, the FBI expects to re-examine approximately 2,000 convictions from 1985 to 2000. The Department of Justice has also agreed to cooperate with review efforts.

At issue is whether analysts who testified in criminal trials during the 15 year period in question either exaggerated or inaccurately stated the significance of their tests on hair samples. According to the FBI, the validity of hair sampling and identification is not in question. Indeed, the Bureau has defended the use of hair sample evidence and says that it is accurate, particularly when paired with DNA analysis.

Unfortunately, however, some technicians may have made statements in some cases that extend beyond the limits of what hair sample evidence can prove. For example, in one recently reviewed case from 1981, an FBI analyst testified in a rape trial that a man's hair was indistinguishable from samples taken from the crime scene. The analyst told the jury that this was extremely rare and proved that the suspect, Kirk Odom, had committed the rape. He was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Years later, Odom was exonerated after DNA evidence proved that samples taken from the crime scene did not belong to him.

Odom's case, along with several other cases just like it, prompted the FBI to take a second look at the evidence used to win these thousands of criminal convictions. The review could result in the exoneration of a great number of current prisoners. According to the Innocence Project, the group has helped free 310 people through the use of DNA evidence. Of those 310 cases, 72 involved the use of hair sample evidence at trial.

The FBI's efforts are a step in the right direction but, sadly, they have come too late for some people. In some cases, those convicted in part because of faulty hair sample evidence died in prison before DNA evidence ultimately proved their innocence. For its part, the Innocence Project has said that it hopes the FBI's willingness to review these cases will also prompt state and local crime labs to reconsider whether the tests used to secure prior convictions were, in fact, accurate.