STORY: "Hairy evidence: how a misconstrued forensic tool led to time behind bars," by reporter Elana Gordon, published by WHYY on November 25, 2016.
While in prison, he was sexually assaulted. He contracted HIV. He broke down, and at one point, attempted to take his own life. "It was just a complete mess," he said. "Mentally, it just tore me down. It put more fear in me than I ever experienced or ever heard of." A big part of Odom's fate, determined in the spring and fall of 1981, and those years of trauma in prison had to do with hair. And more specifically, the techniques that had long been used to compare a suspect's hair to those found at the scene of a crime. The only problem was, those techniques and their interpretation were often misconstrued and oversold in the courts. In the largest post conviction review of evidence, the FBI is now revisiting federal cases involving comparative hair analysis, many of which date back decades. The agency is also encouraging state and local crime labs to do the same. That's because in its review of hundreds of cases thus far, they're discovering a lot of errors in the way this forensic tool had been applied. But it doesn't stop there. The review has been followed by calls by some in the science community for more evidence and standards when it comes to other comparative tools that have long been used, and are still used, in criminal investigations....Analyzing hair as part of criminal investigations dates back at least to the early 1900s. "By the twentieth century it was not common, but it was certainly being attempted," said Skip Palenik, a senior microscopist at Microtrace LLC. Palenik says one can find this mirrored in detective fiction of the time, like Sherlock Holmes. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project, has been tracing the origins of hair comparison in courts, and found an early example that involved eyeballing a hair. "One of the earliest recorded cases that involved the use of hair microscopy was a murder of a plantation owner in Mississippi in the late 1800s," said Fabricant. "And you can kind of see the probative value of a hair that appeared to be the same color as the victim's, and it was bloody and it was found in a noose...You could just take a look at it and decide for yourself how relevant that was to the prosecution." By the mid twentieth century, the FBI's crime lab had begun training experts in comparative hair techniques. This specifically involved examining strands of hair, side by side under the microscope, and then presenting those findings in court. Keep in mind, this was also before DNA testing was introduced in the late 1990s. The practice was used in cases like Kirk Odom's. Odom recalls how during the spring of 1981, a local D.C. police officer approached him because he thought he looked similar to the sketch of a suspect from a recent crime. They brought Odom in and took hair samples. "Still, I didn't know what was going on, what I was being charged with," said Odom. Turns out he was being charged with breaking into a woman's apartment and raping her at gunpoint. Odom was 18 years old at the time. During the trial itself, an FBI-trained analyst testified that the hair found at the scene was microscopically similar to Odom's, and that this similarity was really, really rare. As Odom listened, he couldn't understand it."I was saying to myself, I knew it wasn't me, it wasn't my hair because I know I was not there," he said. Still, he was convicted. Errors identified: In 2013, FBI began its post conviction review in collaboration with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project. By 2015, it had mined through hundreds of cases and identified errors in 90 percent of the testimony given by experts during trial. Fabricant, with the Innocence Project, says one problem stems from the hair analysis being presented in misleading ways. "These hair comparison presentations are not just verbal testimonies, but are often accompanied by elaborate visual demonstrations, that if you look at the hair at issue and the suspect's hair, they appear to match," said Fabricant. In nine of these cases, the FBI reported that defendents had already been executed. Fabricant says hair errors don't necessarily alter the outcome of a case. Oftentimes other evidence supports a conviction, but the reviews have already reversed the outcomes of some cases. Last month, two cases were reopened in Arkansas as a result of the review identifying flawed testimony from experts. Beyond the federal post conviction review, Fabricant's group has found that about a quarter of the some 300 wrongful convictions that have ever been overturned by DNA evidence have involved faulty hair evidence."