Al Jazeera’s Emmy Award-winning “Fault Lines” investigates how the FBI used the flawed science of microscopic hair analysis to help convict thousands of criminal defendants.
In this new episode, “Under the Microscope: The FBI Hair Cases,” Fault Lines correspondent Josh Rushing and team travel to Savannah, Georgia to meet Joseph Sledge. In 1978, Sledge was convicted of murder, partly based on FBI testimony that his hair was “microscopically alike in all respects” to hairs found at the crime scene. He was released this January, after serving 37 years in prison, when DNA testing proved the hairs used at trial were not his.
As “Fault Lines” reveals, Sledge is among at least 74 Americans who were exonerated after being convicted of a crime involving the forensic science of microscopic hair analysis. “There was no physical evidence tying Joseph to the crime, and the microscopic hair comparison was the closest they could come,” attorney Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence said of Sledge’s case.
Before the advent of DNA testing, the FBI used the technique of hair analysis for decades. Al Jazeera America interviewed former FBI hair examiner Morris Samuel Clark, who said he testified “hundreds of times” in court about hair evidence, and that FBI microscopic hair comparisons were based on “16 different characteristics.” However, with no database with which to compare hairs, Clark conceded that the FBI could not account for how hair characteristics are distributed in the general population.
“The hairs on your head are quite different depending on where they’re selected,” said Dr. Terry Melton, founder of Mitotyping Technologies, a Pennsylvania-based DNA lab. “Microscopy is a very subjective science, and DNA is exactly the opposite.”
In 2012, Dr. Melton’s DNA lab helped overturn convictions for two Washington, D.C.-area men: Kirk Odom, arrested for rape when he was 18 years old, and Santae Tribble, arrested for murder when he was 17. Sandra Levick, the public defender who represented both Odom and Tribble in their appeals, said, “We had all 13 of the hairs that the FBI had examined sent off [for DNA testing.]” DNA-testing revealed that one of the hairs used at trial belonged to a dog.