How Hair Evidence Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions in Arizona
The difference between acquittal and conviction is often a margin as slim as a strand of hair. When hair analysis was actually used to obtain that conviction, chances are that it was flawed.
That’s not hyperbole; it’s the conclusion of a three-year study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project.
This work is needed because the FBI study, which ended in 2015, revealed that so-called hair microscopy, or the analysis of hair linked to crime scenes, was flawed and unreliable prior to 2000. That’s mainly because much more reliable mitochondrial DNA testing came into existence in 2000, and it’s still the current standard.
How accurate is hair evidence?
The FBI study results showed that more than 90 percent of reviewed cases had faulty testimony. That’s when the FBI alerted state governors and crime labs about the problem. That alert raises important questions: are persons convicted using hair analysis prior to 2000 innocent? Did they receive a fair trial? Should they be re-tried?
Arizona aims to answer those questions through the task force that includes persons from the attorney general’s office, the Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix police crime lab, the nonprofit Arizona Justice Project and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University’s Post-Conviction Clinic.
To right this wrong, Arizona received a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to fund a task force that will search cases prior to 2000 to flag those in which hair analysis was used. The task force began work in May 2018 and will spend two years at it, overseen by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. They will also review cases and document their results, as well as any exonerations that occur, and recommend policy changes.
Mistakes in hair evidence testimony have led to several overturned convictions in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and other states.
But in Arizona, it did not take an FBI study or a national grant to overturn at least one flawed conviction. Speaking to the Arizona Capitol Times last year, Arizona Justice Project Executive Director Lindsay Herf cited one case in which hair analysis was conclusively proven wrong, and that was more than 16 years ago.
Ray Krone, whose case is better known for mistakes in bite mark evidence, was twice convicted for the murder of Kim Ancona, a Phoenix bartender. A Phoenix crime lab hair analyst provided inaccurate testimony at the 1992 trial, saying hairs found on the victim did not exclude Krone, a Caucasian man. In 1996, an FBI analyst disagreed, testifying the hairs excluded Krone and came from someone of Native American or Asian heritage. In 2002, DNA analysis proved the FBI analyst right. Kenneth Phillips was revealed to be the killer and Krone was exonerated.