Kirk Odom spent 31 years in prison and on parole after pseudoscientific analysis that has finally been discredited. Now the FBI admits it was wrong – in Odom’s case, and many thousands like it
...The prosecution case against Odom was flimsy at best. The victim had seen her assailant only fleetingly and in the dark, and the composite drawing that had been based on her description – the one that the police officer had thought looked just like him – referred to a black male of “medium complexion” when Odom’s skin is very dark. He also had a convincing alibi, having been asleep at his mother’s house at the time of the attack.
With such shaky evidence, Odom assumed that the authorities would soon realise their mistake and the whole nightmare would go away. “I didn’t think anything was going to come of this, because I hadn’t done anything,” he says.
But when it came to trial, prosecution lawyers produced their ace card. They had a hair, they told the jury. A single strand of “negroid” hair found on the victim’s nightgown that must have come from the rapist.
Special Agent Myron T Scholberg of the Federal Bureau of Investigation stood before the jury and delivered the coup de grace. He worked at the FBI’s grand-sounding microscopic analysis unit in Washington, he said, where he was a world-leading expert in the even grander-sounding science of “hair microscopy”. Scholberg told the jury that he had analysed the rapist’s hair found at the crime scene and compared it microscopically with a sample hair taken from Odom’s head. The comparison had produced an exact match, which was significant because that was a “very rare phenomenon”. Having performed thousands of similar hair examinations over the previous 10 years, the FBI agent told the court, there had been only eight or 10 times when hairs from two different people were so similar that he could not tell them apart – suggesting the firm probability that the rapist’s hair and Odom’s hair had come from the same scalp.
The testimony, proudly invoking the certainties of science, did its job: the verdict came in guilty. On the basis of that single hair Kirk Odom was to spend the next 22 years in prison and a further nine living the half-life of a paroled sex offender.
The trouble was, Scholberg’s testimony wasn’t scientific, and it wasn’t true.