The Texas Forensic Science Commission voted unanimously Friday morning to move forward with a first-in-the-nation review of state criminal convictions that included testimony on microscopic hair analysis – a field of forensics deemed unreliable in a sweeping 2009 report on the state of forensics by the National Academy of Sciences.
Texas' planned review piggybacks on a groundbreaking federal investigation announced in July 2013. That inquiry involves 2,000 criminal cases in which hair comparison analysis linking a defendant to crime scene evidence was provided by Federal Bureau of Investigation examiners. That review is being conducted via an agreement between the FBI and Department of Justice with the New York-based Innocence Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Many of the Texas' hair examiners were trained by the FBI, so the state review makes sense, according to the Innocence Project of Texas, which is among the stakeholders collaborating with the FSC on the review. Indeed, the FSC noted this in its most recent annual report. "The FBI has also indicated that it trained many microscopic hair analysts in state and local crime laboratories, including some laboratories in Texas," reads the report. "Of course, this does not necessarily mean that state and local analysts made similar [scientific] overstatements" as did the FBI analysts at issue in the federal review. Still, as it is with that review, Texas' inquiry will focus on older cases, because microscopic hair analysis was more common in the 1980s and 1990s, before the rise of DNA testing. ...
Twenty labs across the state do hair analysis, FSC general counsel Lynn Robitaille Garcia told the commissioners, including 12 Department of Public Safety labs and eight additional public labs (generally county or police department crime labs). The labs are currently in the process of going back and "identifying hair cases" to submit for possible review, she said. So far, four labs – including the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas and the Bexar County lab – have supplied lists of cases, she said, totaling "a few dozen" where "positive association" was made between a defendant and crime scene evidence. Garcia said a database review of appeal court decisions that mention hair analysis yielded a list of some 85 cases. Those cases will be sorted by jurisdiction and supplied to county prosecutors and to participating labs to help them cull through relevant records.My colleague Nick Vilbas from the Innocence Project of Texas told the FSC that, so far, they've identified 20-25 names out of those 85 cases who've contacted IPOT in the past requesting help to prove their innocence, and they haven't finished vetting the list. Without exculpatory DNA evidence, there was little IPOT could do for those folks in the past. But between the FSC review and Texas' new junk science writ that became law September 1st, the landscape has changed. So there's a decent chance this undertaking may result in viable innocence claims and future exonerations, though right now the process remains in the early stages.
Between changes to the habeas corpus statute, the new focus on hair-and-fiber analysis and the ongoing arson review, Texas has lept to the forefront nationally among states confronting junk science that may have resulted in wrongful convictions. Not many years ago, it would have been hard to envision the day when one could say that with a straight face, but there it is.
See related Grits posts:
- Federal hair microscopy review should be replicated at the state level
- Texas should conduct review of hair and fiber forensics comparable to feds
- Hair and fiber review needn't center on death penalty debate
- Faulty hair forensics used to convict executed defendant
- Hair analysis technique that was 'judicially accepted for decades' called 'highly unreliable'
- 'White paper' suggests systemic reforms to respond to mass forensic errors