AG Stein defends science that sent innocent men to prison in interview

WBTV Investigates: Stein refused to answer questions for nearly a year
After nearly a year of investigating the State Crime Lab handling of a now-debunked science known as Microscopic Hair Comparison.
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 8:51 PM EST
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – Attorney General Josh Stein defended a science that has sent at least four innocent men to prison in North Carolina.

Stein’s office has consistently defended a science known as microscopic hair comparison, which was widely used starting in the 1970′s through the early 2000′s. During that period, the science was promoted by the FBI as a tool to identify suspects based on hairs found at a crime scene.

But that changed about a decade ago when scientists at the FBI crime lab and around the country began questioning the efficacy of the science. Eventually, then-FBI Director Jim Comey wrote a letter to governors asking them to review their case files to identify cases where MHC was used and review the evidence to determine if the science sent a potentially innocent person to prison.

Stein’s office has consistently defended a science known as microscopic hair comparison, which was widely used starting in the 1970′s through the early 2000′s

In North Carolina, four men have been released from prison after it was determined they were convicted of crimes they did not commit; prosecutors used MHC as evidence in each case.

Stein’s comments came in an interview with WBTV in early February, nearly a year after the station first began asking for an interview about MHC.

WBTV most recently requested an interview with Stein on the topic in December and was rebuffed.

Previous: N.C. State Crime Lab, Attorney General defend debunked forensic science that sent innocent men to prison

A reporter tried to ask Stein questions as he walked into the Council of State meeting one morning. Stein wouldn’t answer questions then but his staff scheduled an interview for later that morning.

Stein began by continuing to defend the science that has sent innocent men to prison.

“The science isn’t sending anybody to prison what’s been problematic in certain cases in the past is the way that scientists have testified about the science,” Stein said.

But Stein could not explain why it has taken his office so long to begin reviewing old cases to identify convictions that involved MHC evidence.

Stein’s office first agreed to conduct such a review in 2017. The Department of Justice then entered another agreement in 2019.

But the review didn’t start until last spring, after WBTV began asking why the review hadn’t started.

At issue is thousands of files from cases that were tried before 1990. They are all on paper and must be reviewed manually.

In September, the director of the North Carolina State Crime Lab released results of the first three years of the case file review after WBTV asked for a status update.

Previous: Early review finds 900+ cases where debunked science was used by prosecutors

During his interview, though, Stein said he could not give a timeline on when the lab’s initial review would be finished.

“I don’t know the answer to that because I haven’t talked to the state crime lab director to get the latest report,” Stein said. “But we will absolutely get you our best estimate of when we can get this finished.”

A staffer followed up days later to say the initial review of old files—which is just identifying cases that could have used MHC as evidence—would be completed by the end of the first quarter in 2022.

“We’ve been asking about this for a year now. You still don’t have this answer. It doesn’t sound like this is a priority to you,” a WBTV reporter asked.

“It is a priority ensuring that no one behind bars who is innocent is there and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that happens,” Stein said.

Stein also placed the onus on those who had been convicted using the faulty science to come forward so their case could be more easily identified.

“What I would love is if anybody is in prison because of testimony involving microscopic hair analysis before 1990 to call our office,” Stein said.

“No one behind bars has reached out and said ‘hey, I’m imprisoned because of false testimony.’ And if they or their family or their lawyer wants to highlight a case for review, immediate review, we would absolutely welcome that because we don’t want innocent people behind bars.”

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