The FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, contains about 6 or 7 technicians who analyze pictures—down to the pixel—to determine potential matches to suspects. The images of the suspects are collected by investigators with cameras at various crime scenes. This unit specializes in visual evidence and facial recognition. In fact, its examiners can sharpen images or zoom into the minute details to find clues to a crime or eliminate potential suspects.

However, examining images to make case rulings lacks scientific foundation and support. The FBI’s support of using these findings as actual evidence in trial is troubling to many experts, raising new questions about the FBI Laboratory’s role in criminal forensic science.

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The FBI’s History of Inaccuracy

Over the past 50 years, FBI examiners linked crime pictures to defendants using scientifically unproven techniques. Often, jurors are given baseless statistics with disclaimers of tiny risks for error. 

In fact, studies on several photo comparison techniques over the last decade—by both FBI and outside scientists—have found they’re not reliable. Unfortunately, ever since those studies were published, no indication shows that lab officials checked past cases for errors or inaccurate testimonies. Even more so, image examiners continue to use controversial methods to promote prosecutions.

What image examiners do is a type of pattern analysis, a category of forensic science that repeatedly results in misidentifications at both the FBI Laboratory and other crime labs. DNA identification methods only began in the 1980s—before that, most of the FBI Laboratory worked in pattern analysis and matching. Pattern matching consists of comparing features of evidence to the suspect’s body and belongings.

Scientists Disprove the FBI’s Image Analysis Techniques

While FBI examiners have long testified in court that they can determine which fingertip left a print, which scalp grew hair and which gun fired a bullet, research shows otherwise. Research and exonerations by DNA analysis have repeatedly disproved these claims—so much so in fact that the US Department of Justice no longer allows technicians from the FBI (and other agencies) to make such claims as of last year.

However, FBI examiners have continued to defend their claims despite their flawed methods, according to a new review of court records and examiners’ written and published reports. ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, asked leading forensic science experts to review FBI examiners’ methods. The experts identified multiple instances of the examiners overstating the scientific precision of their techniques, and even said that some of their assertions defied logic.

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Other Judges Are Concerned Over Lack of Accountability

The FBI has declined repeated requests for interviews with members and technicians of the image group. Additionally, the bureau did not address the examiners’ inaccurate testimonies and other questionable practices. Judge Jed Rakoff of the US District Court in Manhattan, and a former member of the National Commission on Forensic Science, stated that the examiners tend to rely on their intuition rather than science.

“Their conclusions are basically ‘my hunch is that X is a match for Y. Only they don’t say hunch.”

According to Rakoff, image analysis hadn’t come before him in court and wasn’t taken up by the commission. He also stated that investigators, prosecutors and judges should make sure evidence is reliable before using it. Additionally, Rakoff said that scandals involving other areas of forensic science show the danger of waiting for injustices to go public before compelling reform.

“How many cases of innocent people being wrongly convicted have to occur before people realize that there’s a very broad spectrum of forensic science? Some of it is very good, like DNA. Some of it is pretty good, like fingerprinting. And some of it is not good at all.”

Cloudy View of Image Analysis

Unfortunately, details on FBI cases and testimonies are not readily available to the public. Due to this reality, there’s no way to determine exactly how often image examiners testify, nor when their photo comparisons serve as central evidence in prosecutions.

If you know someone in Harris County in jail or awaiting trial, call us to find out how we can help get them out today.