Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Fellows.
Florida’s death row, less than an hour southwest of Jacksonville, is located in one of the oldest and most notorious maximum-security prison complexes in America. Thirty-three years ago, hundreds of spectators gathered here outside the razor-wire fencing in jubilant anticipation of serial killer Ted Bundy’s electrocution, chanting “Burn Bundy Burn” and clanging frying pans.
One day last March, I drove rural Route 121, rimmed in loblolly pines, to meet two current Florida death row inmates slated to join ninety-nine people executed since 1976, when the state reinstated capital punishment. Carrying only my prison-approved notebook, pen, and voice recorder, I stepped in line behind the correctional officers, in bullet-proof vests and combat boots, on their way to work at the Union Correctional Institution. Established in 1913, Union Correctional is a gray building with blue trim and a large watch tower at the entrance. It currently houses roughly 1,700 male inmates, many convicted of heinous crimes.
Sergeant Derin Blue, a guard at the prison for the last 30 years, escorted me through several iron gates and open-air corridors to a room with cinder-block walls, linoleum flooring, and a lacquered conference table encircled with leather office chairs and a dingy old straight-back chair for a prisoner to sit. Blue pointed me toward one of the comfortable office chairs and assured me that he’d be there if I needed anything. “I’ll make it a pleasant experience,” he said. “I’m that guy—they call me the Deputy of Death Row.”
I came to interview Gerald Delane Murray and James Duckett. Murray, 53, was sentenced to die for raping, stabbing, and strangling to death a 59-year-old Jacksonville grandmother named Alice Vest in her mobile home in 1990. Duckett, 65, was sent to death row for the 1987 murder of 11-year-old Teresa McAbee, found floating in a lake in Mascotte, a small city near Orlando where Duckett worked as a police officer.
Besides their iron-barred lodgings and shackles, inmates Murray and Duckett have something in common: Their convictions were based at least in part on an old-school forensic technique that has since been debunked by DNA analysis. The method, known as microscopic hair analysis — which entails visually matching hairs plucked from suspects’ heads and bodies to strands found at crime scenes — is among a long list of forensic disciplines that have been discredited in recent decades. Others include lead bullet analysis, arson investigation, blood spatter, shaken baby syndrome, and bite mark analysis. Murray and Duckett, who maintain their innocence, say hair analysis was used to wrongfully convict them.
Of 28 examiners in the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed.
Whether they’re innocent or guilty is in the realm of the courts, but the misapplication of forensic science has indeed led to wrongful convictions — and even wrongful executions. The nonprofit Innocence Project, which helps exonerate prisoners through DNA testing, reports that flawed forensic science contributed to 43 percent of the 375 cases in which U.S. prisoners were exonerated by DNA evidence. Countrywide, false or misleading forensic testimony has played a role in 24 percent of the more than 3,000 wrongful convictions in the U.S. that have been overturned since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In August 2020, a Florida court freed former death-row inmate Robert DuBoise, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 19-year-old woman named Barbara Grams based on discredited bitemark analysis supposedly matching DuBoise to an injury on the victim’s body. The jury unanimously recommended that DuBoise be sentenced to life, but the judge overrode their recommendation, sentencing him to execution in the state’s electric chair. Thirty-seven years later, after DNA from an untested rape kit excluded DuBoise and implicated two other men, he was released.
Florida is far from the only state where juries have been misled by unproven forensics. Claud Jones maintained his innocence all the way to the Texas death chamber, where on December 7, 2000, prison officials strapped him to a gurney and inserted two intravenous needles in his arm, delivering a fatal cocktail of drugs that stopped his heart. The only piece of physical evidence linking Jones to the 1989 murder of East Texas liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager was a single piece of hair collected from the store counter. DNA testing to confirm the hair belonged to Jones didn’t exist at the time of his 1990 trial. But the technique was widely available when Jones was set to be executed. In the weeks prior to his death, he requested a stay of execution from two Texas courts to allow for the hair to be tested. Both courts denied Jones’ pleas.
His last hope was Texas governor George W. Bush, then on the verge of becoming president pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Florida’s 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore. The governor had recently granted a 30-day stay of execution for Ricky McGinn, convicted of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl in 1993, to allow DNA testing on key evidence in the case. (When the tests supported the jury’s verdict, McGinn was executed.) In a June 2000 interview with CNN, Bush explained his decision to allow time for the testing. “To the extent that DNA can prove innocence or guilt,” he said, “I think we need to use DNA.”
However, Bush was never briefed about Jones’ request. A general counsel memo, later acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed he was only notified about a chemist testifying that the hair was a match to Jones; based on the facts, the General Counsel did not recommend a reprieve. Hours later, Jones, 60, became the 152nd execution during Bush’s time in the Texas governor’s mansion.
Whether they’re innocent or guilty is in the realm of the courts, but the misapplication of forensic science has indeed led to wrongful convictions — and even wrongful executions.
Fast forward to November 2010, when a DNA test revealed the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all; it was from Hilzendager, the murder victim. While the finding wasn’t proof of Jones’ innocence, it revealed a disturbing truth: Texas convicted and executed a man based on false evidence. “It is unbelievable that the lawyers in the General Counsel’s office failed to inform the governor that Jones was seeking DNA testing on evidence that was so pivotal to the case,” former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White said in a statement. “If the state is going to continue to use the death penalty, it must figure out a way to build safeguards in the system so that lapses like this don’t happen again.”
In April 2015, the U.S. Justice Department and FBI formally acknowledged that microscopic hair analysis, used for more than two decades prior to 2000, was seriously flawed. Of 28 examiners in the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed. Counted among the cases were 32 death row sentences, including 14 defendants who had already been executed or who died of other causes while waiting for their turn in the death chamber. With federal officials’ acknowledgment that nearly an entire unit of FBI forensic examiners overstated testimony about hair matches for decades, legal analysts said the big question would be how courts and prosecutors respond to criminal convictions that may have relied on such evidence.
At Union Correctional, Gerald Murray and James Duckett, in orange shirts, matching pants, and handcuffs, took turns shuffling into the conference room to tell me about how the discredited forensic science of microscopic hair analysis contributed to their convictions. “The FBI says our agent lied, gave misleading testimony, made up evidence, and admitted that there was no expertise in hair comparison,” Duckett said. “You would think, especially in death penalty cases, they’d throw out the hair and start over with a new trial.”
MIT Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow Rene Ebersole, an award-winning investigative reporter, is developing a book about the biggest scandal in American forensics—how debunked hair testimony has cheated hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants from receiving fair trials.