Flawed Hair Evidence Used to Convict Innocent People

A picture is emerging of how flawed hair evidence was used to convict people who may have been innocent.

IMG: Richard Beranek – SRC: Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In one of the cases, Richard Beranek was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of 243 years. He was found guilty in a rape case where the rape had been committed 130 miles from where he lived. The rape victim picked him out of a number of photographs and told police that he was almost certainly the attacker. She then picked him out of a lineup.

Before she was raped, the 28-year-old woman had been followed around town. An unknown man had also been harassing her with sexually charged telephone calls. She suspected that the man lived nearby. Beranek would emerge as a prime suspect two years after the rape attack. Police thought Beranek, who was facing another sexual assault charge in his hometown, had the closest resemblance to a sketch they had drawn of the suspect in the rape in Stoughton.

Wayne Oakes was the FBI analyst in the case. He sealed Beranek’s fate by concluding that a hair that was found in the rapist’s underwear closely matched his. Although the FBI was aware that microscopic hair comparison was not the most accurate method of suspect identification, Oakes still used the process in Beranek’s case. Even a high-powered microscope can show hair from different individuals to look identical. Oakes had sighted Michael Malone, who he said was an analyst with more experience, to further bolster his case. Malone who was said to have a near-flawless ability when it came to comparing hair samples had confirmed that Beranek’s hair matched the sample.

During the case, Beranek had multiple witnesses who testified that he was innocent and far away from the scene of the crime when the crime occurred. But that did not stop the jury from finding him guilty on nine counts of felony. Daniel Moeser, who was a circuit judge in Dane County at the time, sentenced him to serve a prison term of 243 years. He was sentenced as a repeat criminal offender.

Beranek, who is now 59, was recently exonerated.

The microscopic hair comparison method used by the FBI has been called into question in several hundred cases nationwide. Beranek’s is one of those cases. According to DNA testing, Beranek was not the original source of the hair that was found in the underwear of the perpetrator. He is also not the source of the sperm found on the victim’s underwear. This is according to findings in a motion that was filed for a new trial in 2016. The motion was filed by attorneys working with the Innocence Project in New York and Wisconsin. The FBI has since acknowledged that the testimony used by Oakes in Beranek’s contained significant errors. The implication that hair found at a crime scene can be associated with one person and exclude everyone else has no scientific basis according to the FBI.

There are approximately 3,000 cases that are set to be re-examined. These are cases in which the FBI used fiber or hair analysis before DNA testing was widely available from the year 2000 onwards. A total of 1,600 have already been reviewed. The review has found 90 percent of the cases to be faulty.