Flaws in Forensic Evidence

The office of the Santa Clara District Attorney’s “Conviction Integrity Unit” is going through the arduous effort of scanning previously sentenced individuals for details where microscopic hairs have been utilized in a guilty verdict. These tiny pieces have been used to convict persons from everything including rapes, child molestations, kidnappings, and murders. What has prompted this investigation is the recent overturning of the kidnap and sexual assault by Glen Payne, now freed, who served fifteen years for the crime.

The case involved a two-year old child. The girl was found missing from her home in May 1987, and later located covered in feces, grass and leaves. Her explanation of what had happened was difficult and conflicted, but she eventually stated that it was: “The black man who lived next door,” and that he was wearing a baseball cap. Payne lived across the street with his mother and often wore a baseball cap.

He was arrested and forced to undress while standing on a large sheet. The investigators recovered a dark hair from this, which they determined through microscopic hair comparison, were a match of the little girl. This was the work of Mark Moriyama, an Expert Witness in Hair Microscopy, who stated that the odds were 129,000 to one that the hair was that of the child.

But Moriyama had utilized an outdated study that had never been generally accepted by other forensic hair experts. Moriyama’s testimony is now under review in eight other cases involving hair comparison. Payne has always maintained his innocence, but it required the reviewing of the case by the “Northern California Innocence Project” to have his record cleared. They assessed the Expert Testimony was invalid. Further review by medical experts determined that the girl was never sexually abused but had a misidentified infection.

Over 4,000 files are currently being scanned in the county to identify any that have used hair as a part of the conviction. Some of these go back as far as the 1970s. The erroneous attributing of evidence has been an on-going problem in many areas of prosecution, and, thereafter, the overturning of the convictions when it was later determined that the process its self was intrinsically inaccurate.

This is only one County, and it begs the question of what will be the result of further evaluation of convictions by other counties. More so, in 2015, FBI Director James Comey issued a memorandum to State Governors admitting that the training for state hair examiners was flawed.  Further admissions by the FBI were to the effect that between 1985 through 2000, the FBI examiners improperly testified in 95 percent of the cases involving hair microscopy.

As the science of forensic evidence is improving, the number of over turned convictions have increased. When tools for prosecution improve and become available, they also become methods of exonerating those wrongly charged.