The FBI has been providing flawed hair analysis for decades, and Florida is the state with the most defendants affected, with at least ten of those ending up on death row and at least one execution.
According to a report by the Washington Post, the hair analysis was overstated by the FBI's microscopic hair comparison unit in 95 percent of 268 trials reviewed. Of the cases in which that happened, 42 came from Florida. That's twice as many as the state with the second-highest number of affected cases: Pennsylvania with 21.
The FBI admits it exaggerated the facts.
“The department has been working together with the Innocence Project and [National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] to address errors made in statements by FBI examiners regarding microscopic hair analysis in the context of testimony and laboratory reports,” said Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the Science and Technology Branch of the FBI.
But it's not clear why so many cases have come from Florida. And the two organizations that have criticized the FBI on the mistake – the Innocence Project and the NACDL – are keeping quiet about the Florida cases for now.
“We are not releasing the names of the defendants affected at this time, leaving it to those who were notified to determine what to do with the information and whether to disclose the error to the press,” says Ivan Dominguez, director of communications for the NACDL.
Florida has one case in which flawed hair analysis helped convict somebody who was eventually executed. Nationwide, nine people have been executed, including five from Texas.
Dominguez said that his organization is keeping quiet about those names too. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
But just because the hair analysis was faulty doesn't mean hundreds of cases are about to be overturned, says Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate convicted people.
“You have to look at the entirety of the record. It could be one piece of evidence in a larger amount of guilt,” says Miller. “Even if improper evidence was in the case, it might be just one piece of evidence in the case.”
Miller adds that his organization is still in the process of looking into the affected cases to determine if it will get involved in any appeals.
This is not the first time the FBI has had to stop aspects of its forensic evidence. In 2005, the FBI announced it would no longer rely on bullet lead analysis after it proved to be faulty in several cases. At least three people were exonerated after the evidence was proven to be false.