On Nov. 18, the Korey Wise Innocence Project (KWIP) at the University of Colorado Law School announced a partnership with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to review criminal cases that occurred in Colorado between 1976 and 1995 where hair microscopy analysis was used as evidence.
Colorado Law students will review 51 court cases identified by the CBI where hairs collected from crime scenes were visually compared to draw conclusions about whether the hairs came from a particular suspect.
KWIP’s goal will be to review court transcripts for potentially inaccurate testimony and determine whether the hair microscopy evidence played a central role in the conviction. If so, KWIP may pursue DNA testing and other legal avenues to challenge any potentially wrongful convictions.
“Microscopic hair analysis was conducted in Colorado before the advent of forensic DNA,” said Anne-Marie Moyes, KWIP director. “We’re grateful the CBI collaborated with our defense organization to identify possible errors in decades-old cases where hair microscopy was used as evidence, and we look forward to working together to improve accuracy and credibility in our criminal legal system.”
Microscopic hair analysis was widely used in forensic science by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and state jurisdictions dating back to the 1950s, before the advent of forensic DNA.
The FBI acknowledged serious problems with hair microscopy in 2013 after DNA testing exonerated three men who had been wrongfully convicted based at least in part on erroneous testimony by FBI hair examiners. Following the exonerations, the FBI, Department of Justice (DOJ), the Innocence Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) conducted a comprehensive review of more than 21,000 cases where FBI analysts performed hair microscopy.
When the comprehensive review identified additional errors by FBI hair examiners, the FBI encouraged states to conduct similar reviews of their own hair microscopy work.
“There have been vast technological advances in forensic science, and DNA in particular,” said John Camper, CBI director. “This review is an opportunity to ensure accuracy in scientific conclusions and testimony, no matter the age of the case.”
The CBI modified testing procedures through the years and stopped conducting microscopic analysis of hair in 2011.
In 2020, KWIP and the CBI began discussing how to review hair microscopy cases in Colorado. Moyes said this partnership between KWIP and the CBI is a great model for criminal science.
“Defense organizations like the Korey Wise Innocence Project do not have the ability to identify old hair microscopy cases on our own,” said Moyes.
The joint review will look at cases where microscopic hair analysis played a role in the conviction. Only cases where individuals are still incarcerated are eligible for review.
This project will use credible scientific evidence to ensure the right people were convicted of these crimes under review and to bring true justice to all parties involved if the review proves otherwise.
Formerly the Colorado Innocence Project, the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law is named after Korey Wise, one of the so-called “Central Park 5” wrongfully convicted of the sexual assault of a woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. KWIP evaluates cases of people who believe they have been convicted of a crime despite being innocent to see if there are factual and legal grounds to challenge the conviction. Often, Colorado Law students play key roles in bringing these cases to justice.