Max M. Houck, Ph.D., Director at the District of Columbia Department of… (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON…)
Thousands of criminal cases at the state and local level may have relied on exaggerated testimony or false forensic evidence to convict defendants of murder, rape and other felonies.
The forensic experts in these cases were trained by the same elite FBI team whose members gave misleading court testimony about hair matches and later taught the local examiners to follow the same suspect practices, according to interviews and documents.
In July, the Justice Department announced a nationwide review of all cases handled by the FBI Laboratory’s hair and fibers unit before 2000 — at least 21,000 cases — to determine whether improper lab reports or testimony might have contributed to wrongful convictions.
But about three dozen FBI agents trained 600 to 1,000 state and local examiners to apply the same standards that have proved problematic.
None of the local cases is included in the federal review. As a result, legal experts say, although the federal inquiry is laudable, the number of flawed cases at the state and local levels could be even higher, and those are going uncorrected.
The FBI review was prompted by a series of articles in The Washington Post about errors at the bureau’s renowned crime lab involving microscopic hair comparisons. The articles highlighted the cases of two District men who each spent more than 20 years in prison based on false hair matches by FBI experts. Since The Post’s articles, the men have been declared innocent by D.C. Superior Court judges.
Two high-profile local-level cases illustrate how far the FBI training problems spread.
In 2004, former Montana crime lab director Arnold Melnikoff was fired and more than 700 cases questioned because of what reviewers called egregious scientific errors involving the accuracy of hair matches dating to the 1970s. His defense was that he was taught by the FBI and that many FBI-trained colleagues testified in similar ways, according to previously undisclosed court records.
In 2001, Oklahoma City police crime lab supervisor Joyce Gilchrist lost her job and more than 1,400 of her cases were questioned after an FBI reviewer found that she made claims about her matches that were “beyond the acceptable limits of science.” Court filings show that Gilchrist received her only in-depth instruction in hair comparison from the FBI in 1981 and that she, like many practitioners, went largely unsupervised.
Federal officials, asked about state and local problems, said the FBI has committed significant resources to speed the federal review but that state and local police and prosecutors would have to decide whether to undertake comparable efforts.
FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd defended the training of local examiners as “continuing education” intended to supplement formal training provided by other labs. The FBI did not qualify examiners, a responsibility shared by individual labs and certification bodies, she said.
Michael Wright, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said local prosecutors cannot simply order labs to audit all or even a sample of cases handled by FBI-trained examiners, because such an undertaking might be time- and cost-prohibitive for smaller agencies.
The chairman of the laboratory accreditation board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors said it is gathering information to guide members.
“It is something we take seriously, and we are going to address it accordingly,” said Pamela Bordner, the chairman.
The announcement in July of the Justice Department review of federal cases marked a turnabout from the mid-1990s, when an inquiry looked at a limited number of cases and, in the area of hair comparison, focused on the work of one examiner at the FBI lab.
In its April investigation, The Post found that Justice Department officials failed to tell many defendants or their attorneys of questionable evidence and that the results of the review remained largely secret.
In addition, Justice Department officials have for years blamed errors on isolated failures by rogue examiners, careless prosecutors or inept defense lawyers.
But former chiefs of the FBI lab’s hair and fiber unit now acknowledge that the problems were more widespread. Some federal examiners, testifying in cases across the country, overstated the importance of hair evidence and responded to questions about the scientific accuracy of hair matches by citing amorphous statistics drawn from their experience.
Moreover, they said, examiners should have been trained to accurately portray their findings in court. When local lab examiners went to the FBI for training, they received the same inadequate instruction.
Myron T. “Mike” Scholberg, hair unit chief from 1978 to 1985, and Alan T. “Al” Robillard, chief from 1988 to 1990, said that in hindsight, they were not properly trained to answer a crucial question for jurors: How often might the hairs of different people appear to match? The truth is that there was no scientific way to know.