August 14, 2019

Root Cause Analysis for Microscopic Hair Comparison Analysis Completed

In 2012, the FBI initiated a review of Microscopic Hair Comparison Analysis (MHCA) testimony and reports after convictions in three District of Columbia cases that used FBI forensic hair analysis were vacated. The FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, reviewed MHCA transcripts and reports where the hair analysis was done prior to December 31, 1999, when mitochondrial DNA testing was routinely used by the FBI Laboratory following hair evidence analysis.

The MHCA review was intended to determine if FBI Laboratory examiner testimony and reports properly reflected the limitations of the underlying science by current standards. After reviewing a number of transcripts, the FBI determined that at least 90 percent contained errors. In response, the FBI made a public commitment in April 2015 to conduct an independent investigation of the factors that contributed to the development and perpetration of the testimonial errors identified in 2012. In July 2017, the FBI engaged the ABS Group, a nationally recognized risk assessment organization, to conduct an independent root cause analysis of these issues. 

The ABS Group finished its evaluation in August 2018, and the FBI has received the report’s findings and conclusions. The ABS Group found no evidence of malicious intent on the part of examiners who made errors in reports or testimony. In its report, the ABS Group determined that “the most important cause of report and testimony errors was that the MHCA examiners did not have sufficiently specific guidance (i.e. instructions for MHCA reports and testimony that enable an MHCA examiner to consistently write reports and testify without error).”

The FBI Laboratory has already addressed key contributing factors identified by the ABS Group that existed prior to December 31, 1999.  Proper training, supervision, and the hiring of professional staff scientists addressed most of the causes of the errors identified by the ABS Group. Specifically, with the 1998 accreditation of the FBI Laboratory, the FBI adopted comprehensive written standards for forensic testing and a process to review testimony for forensic disciplines including obtaining transcripts for review following examiner testimony and/or live testimony monitoring.

Finally, audits are conducted and, if needed, corrective actions are implemented.

Additionally, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report in 2017 that evaluated the quality assurance system procedures used by the FBI Laboratory and the Trace Evidence Program—including MHCA. The GAO report found the FBI Laboratory adheres “to quality standards for conducting forensic examinations, including conducting audits, implementing corrective actions, ensuring staff have appropriate training and reviewing laboratory reports.” 

The GAO’s sole recommendation was that the FBI Laboratory pursue an even more robust approach to overcome challenges in obtaining transcripts for review following examiner testimony. In response to this recommendation, and in collaboration with DOJ, the FBI institutionalized a department-wide testimony monitoring program for all forensic disciplines conducted by the FBI Laboratory.  

With the completion of the independent root cause analysis and after reviewing 23,547 cases identified by the MHCA review team, the FBI MHCA review is concluded. If the FBI obtains previously non-reviewed transcripts from cases that meet the MHCA review criteria, the FBI will review the transcripts and provide the testimony evaluations to DOJ to give to the appropriate prosecutor and prosecuting office, defense counsel of record, and defendant. 

View complete ABS Group report: Root and Cultural Cause Analysis of Report and Testimony Errors by FBI MHCA Examiners