A little more on forensics

It is unusual in military cases to have evidence of microscopic hair analysis.  But, it’s worth keeping up on, just in case.  Also, the point below is further substantiation of the National Academy of Sciences critique of forensic “science” evidence.  A 2009 news release on the NSA report had this to say:

A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research.  Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence.  And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods.  Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Interestingly, in April 2009, before the NSA report was released, the FBI published a short piece about hair examination, which seems to support the reliability of MHE.

Various state and federal organizations have responded to the NSA report in various ways.

The Houston Chronicle reports, Hair Analysis: The Root of the Evidence Problem (Texas takes on first-in-the-nation statewide case review).

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.

The Innocence Project released this information in July 2013:

 Today the Innocence Project, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and its partners announced a groundbreaking and historic agreement with the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review more than 2,000 criminal cases in which the FBI conducted microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence. The agencies agreed to undertake the review after three men who had served lengthy prison sentences were exonerated by DNA testing in cases in which three different FBI hair examiners provided testimony which exceeded the limits of science and contributed to their wrongful convictions. The review will focus on specific cases in which FBI Laboratory reports and testimony included statements that were scientifically invalid.

There is an interesting reminder (a la Phillip Mills) that it is not always the “science” that is wrong, but the examiner and the examiners opinions.

Arnold Melnikoff, the former lab director at the Montana State Crime Lab, is the poster child for improper hair testimony. Melnikoff, Joyce Gilchrist in Oklahoma City and others who lacked the proper training and casework experience, were found to have overstated the significance of microscopic hair comparison results in court.

A forensic toxicologist, for example, who detects a certain level of drugs in the blood of a suspected impaired driver, and later overstates the level of impairment during court testimony, does not invalidate the science of toxicology by virtue of their improper testimony.

Similarly, when the FBI discontinued the service of comparative bullet lead analysis in 2005, it was not the science of lead analysis that was bad. It was the significance assigned to the results that was flawed.

Certainly, the interpretation of results is a part of science.  But the distinction has relevance to our criminal justice system, which must be able to recognize the difference between junk science and isolated instances of junk application.  The two are very different.


 The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today announced appointments to a newly created National Commission on Forensic Science. Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system.









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