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For 'Justice and Safety'

The revelation that hair analysis testimony from US Federal Bureau of Investigation forensic examiners was flawed shouldn't come as a surprise, writes the Broad Institute's Eric Lander in an op-ed appearing in the New York Times.

A review performed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project found that more than 95 percent the 268 trials examined so far included testimony from the FBI Laboratory's microscopic hair comparison unit that overstated matches they made, the Washington Post reports. The FBI and the Department of Justice have acknowledged these errors.

At the Times, Landers writes this "is the culmination of a collision between law and science that began in 1989 in a Bronx courtroom with the murder trial of a janitor."

That case was one of the first to evaluate the use of DNA fingerprinting, and Lander notes that "[w]hile prosecutors were dazzled by the potential of DNA technology to pinpoint perpetrators, the testing lab's work proved to be shoddy and its conclusions unreliable" — so much so that scientific witnesses for both the defense like Lander and the prosecution agreed the DNA evidence was unreliable. This, he adds, led to the creation of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA tools to review past convictions, leading to the release of some 300 prisoners. 

While hair analysis testimony from some 2,500 cases in 40 states between 1985 and 1999 is now under review — the results in the Post are from the first 268 cases — Lander says the issue isn't limited to hair analysis and that the field itself needs increased rigor.

He argues that experts who testify should provide support for their claims, and show a database of patterns from representative samples, the criteria used to determine a match, and peer-reviewed studies that validate the methods used.

"Insistence on high-quality forensics should unite law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys," Lander writes. "It's a matter of both justice and safety: No one wants innocent defendants in jail — or executed — while true perpetrators are still at large."