David J. Celuch
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FBI photo analysis techniques may be unreliable in criminal cases

Study results are unraveling the credibility of long-used FBI photo-analysis techniques used to connect suspects to cases. Investigators take photos at crime scenes then send them to an FBI laboratory where the pictures are analyzed down to minute details for evidence or facial identification to connect perpetrators to crimes. These methods may be much more unreliable than assumed.

The FBI lab’s forensic science findings are used as trial evidence to convict defendants; however, some forensic science techniques used by the FBI are unproven to be effective. These techniques have repeatedly been involved in cases of wrongful charges and even wrongful convictions.

Now, studies completed over the past 10 years are showing that photo comparison techniques that the FBI uses are not always accurate. Specifically, pattern analysis (which compares pieces of evidence to pictures of the suspect’s appearance) is a method that has resulted in a number of wrongful charges. New testimony guidelines released last year from the Attorney General no longer allow for experts to make blanket statements as facts using types of pattern analysis, such as hair analysis.

The problem with “junk science”

“Junk science” is one of the top causes of wrongful convictions. This is a term for unproven theories that are displayed as scientific facts. Subjective types of forensic science used in criminal cases include:

  • Photo comparison
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Hair fiber examination
  • Fingerprint analysis

These forensic science techniques can be useful but are not always reliable. Many cases are swayed by cognitive bias from examiners and law enforcement, especially cases involving “junk science.” Additionally, jurors are found to be especially moved by forensic experts in court.

Unproven methods are taken as fact in court

According to research completed by ProPublica, examiners have continuously overstated the accuracy of FBI photo-analysis techniques in testimonies and used unreliable forensic science methods in criminal cases. Essentially, they used subjective methods of matching evidence with a hunch.

Forensic science is often taken as fact in court. Many forensic experts who testify in court are rarely disputed. Most defense attorneys do not receive training on forensic science statistics or in science, leaving experts unchallenged. Ultimately, innocent defendants face criminal charges rooted in bias and backed by unreliable findings. This results in wrongful convictions. In fact, a study shows that 63 percent of wrongful convictions included a forensic science error. Fortunately, those who have been wrongfully convicted have resources for help with the Oregon Innocence Project and attorneys who practice post-conviction relief.

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