SHEDNOTES 133: More evidence for never believing anything

The Shed was interested to read a good follow-up by the Guardian’s chief US reporter, Ed Pilkington, to his earlier reports on the “almighty mess” being discovered in the justice system in the wake of successful appeals by innocent men, including Kirk Odom, who spent 22 years in prison for rape “on the fantasy evidence of a single hair” – followed by nine years “living the half-life of a paroled sex offender”, as Pilkington wrote.

The fantasy, that scientific analysis could find the truth even when any other fact was missing, was constructed by the FBI, but The Shed seems to recall quite a lot of Crown Prosecution depending on the same sort of faith in experts. Watch this space.

Pilkington’s interview with Kirk Odom is at

Summing up the background, he wrote:

“At its peak, the microscopic analysis unit in Washington had 11 special agents devoted entirely to hair comparisons, working on up to 2,000 cases a year and testifying 250 times annually. Between 1972 and 1999, the unit produced at least 2,500 positive hair matches that were used in criminal cases, and tens of thousands more may have resulted from FBI ‘experts’ training detectives to use the spurious technique in individual states across the country.

“In April this year, as Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post first reported, the FBI and the justice department formally acknowledged that it had given flawed testimony in almost all the criminal trials in which its agents were involved. Those cases included 32 that put defendants on death row – nine of whom have already been executed.

“Perhaps the most remarkable part of this sorry saga is that it took the finest investigative minds in the US justice system until April 2015 to make that formal recognition. Yet the FBI was warned about the dodgy science at least as early as 1985.

“Fred Whitehurst is the whistleblower who first sounded the alarm from inside the institution, setting the ball rolling that would lift the lid on the hair analysis disaster and eventually lead to the clearing of Odom’s name. I asked Whitehurst why he thought the FBI had stuck with hair comparisons years after the scientific credibility of the technique had been called into question. ‘It got convictions,’was his simple reply.”


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