This week, buried in a Charlotte Observer editorial, was a surprising admission: The N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence is reexamining 900 convictions in which the State Bureau of Investigation may have used unreliable forensic evidence.
In all these cases, the SBI used hair analysis to prove the defendant’s guilt. In most cases, that means analysts used a microscope to compare hairs found at the crime scene with the defendant’s hair, and said they matched up. This technique was used in North Carolina until DNA testing of hair became available, around 2003. We don’t know how many of the 900 are death penalty cases.
We now know that this kind of forensic “science” is junk. Subjective forensic evidence, such as hair comparisons and bite mark comparisons, have been a contributing factor in more than a quarter of the 329 DNA-exoneration cases in the U.S. since 1989.
Last week, the FBI admitted that it has overstated the reliability of hair analysis in virtually every case where hair evidence was presented, including 36 cases where defendants were sentenced to death.
Only three of the cases the FBI identified were in North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a big problem.
Guess where North Carolina’s SBI learned its hair analysis techniques? From the FBI.
We already know bad hair analysis has contributed to one wrongful conviction in North Carolina: that of Joseph Sledge, who was recently exonerated after 36 years in prison. At Sledge’s trial, the jury was told that hairs found on the victim were consistent with Sledge’s. Decades later, DNA testing showed the hairs did not belong to Sledge.
The Actual Innocence Commission’s effort to examine all cases where hair analysis contributed to a conviction is a good first step. But it is not enough.
Every one of the 900 defendants whose cases have been identified by the state should be notified, and have a chance to investigate how big a role discredited forensic evidence played in the conviction and sentence.
Also, it’s time to finally do a comprehensive, independent review of all the State Crime Lab’s divisions. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen evidence of widespread problems with forensic evidence in North Carolina, and it’s not likely to be the last.
Let’s not forget that the junk science we are talking about is the very evidence that has often been used to justify the death penalty. These revelations about hair evidence show us, once again, that we simply don’t know how many innocent people still sit in North Carolina’s prisons — or on its death row.