Years of Faulty Forensic Science on Hair Samples Plagues Criminal Justice System

An Innocent Man Released

Mr. Kirk Odom

In 2012, after 22 years in prison, Kirk L. Odom walked out of a Washington D.C. courthouse an innocent man. A jury found Mr. Odom’s guilty of a rape and robbery of a woman in 1981. Judge Herbert B. Dixon of the D.C. Superior Court cited new DNA evidence as part of the basis for Mr. Odom’s exoneration.

Forensic Science: Both the Solution and the Problem

On its face, Mr. Odom’s case is a perfect example of advances in science correct wrongs against innocent defendants in our criminal justice system. Advances in DNA science made it possible for Mr. Odom, after two decades, to finally clear his name. Mr. Odom’s case is also, however, an example of how bad science can mislead juries.

During Mr. Odom’s jury trial, FBI forensic scientists testified that Mr. Odom on a hair sample found at the scene of the crime. They said the evidence showed that Mr. Odom likely committed the crime he was charged with. This testimony from scientific experts played a part in the juries decision to find Mr. Odom guilty.

What Went Wrong?

Sadly, the faulty use of hair samples in Mr. Odom’s case is not an isolated incident. Research currently being conducted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project reveals years of systematic distortion on the reliability of the use of hair sample evidence in trials.

The study looks at testimony of members of 28 examiners from the FBI Criminal Lab’s microscopic hair unit. Of those 28 examiners, 26 distorted their testimony in a pro-prosecutor direction in 95% of the 258 trials investigated in the study so far. Thirty-two of those cases led to a jury sentencing the defendant to the death penalty. Fourteen of those given the death penalty have already been executed by the state or died in prison.

Calls for Reform

Cases like Mr. Odon’s as well as the research currently being conducted by the NACDL and Innocence Project are leading to calls for reform. Texas, New York, and North Carolina are currently reviewing how they evaluate hair samples in criminal cases. Furthermore, some states are considering drafting laws that make convictions based on science that is subsequently discovered to be faulty a violation of a criminal defendant’s due process rights.

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