Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $573,316)
In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a study concluding that hair microscopy analysis is inaccurate and unreliable. Following the release of that study, the FBI agreed to review thousands of cases in which analysts had performed hair microscopy analysis. Conducted with the assistance of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, that review found that the examiners gave flawed and misleading testimony in 95% of the cases reviewed. Following these shocking findings, then Attorney General Holder recommended that each state undertake its own investigation into the role hair microscopy testimony played in obtaining convictions prior to 2000. As of yet, Colorado has taken no steps towards adhering to that advice.
Over the past two years, the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law (KWIP) has been working to find alternative ways to identify innocence cases in Colorado, especially cases where untested biological evidence may exist. One of the identification methods successfully used by other innocence organizations around the country has been to focus on cases involving discredited forensic disciplines such as hair microscopy and then screen those cases for factual innocence.
In the spring of 2020, KWIP reached out to several of the crime labs in Colorado to see if they would collaborate in identifying cases where hair and fiber microscopy analysis was completed. The Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI), the largest forensic lab in Colorado, began an initial discussion with us. After a year of negotiation, the CBI provided KWIP with a list of cases where hair microscopy analysis was completed and the individual is still incarcerated based on that conviction. There are fifty-one individuals on this list. The individuals on this list have cases from across the state of Colorado. All of the cases involve convictions for violent felony offenses where the defendants are serving significant prison sentences.
Through this grant opportunity, KWIP seeks funding to hire an additional staff attorney who will be responsible for managing our hair microscopy project. The staff attorney will take primary responsibility for the cases as they move through the different screening processes and then through DNA testing and, if warranted, exoneration. By completing a review of Colorado’s hair microscopy cases where the defendant remains in prison, our organization aims to remedy wrongful convictions in Colorado based on this flawed forensic method and free innocent people in Colorado’s prisons.