Forensic Evidence Under Attack

If you care about the quality of the forensic evidence that police and prosecutors use to obtain criminal convictions, you'll want to get your hands on a report that the National Academy of Sciences will be releasing later this month. The science practiced in crime labs isn't as miraculous as CSI makes it out to be.

People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting. The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study.

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Improving the accuracy of evidence used to obtain convictions isn't likely to be a high priority given the need to address the economy, energy policy, global warming, and all the other problems that were neglected during the Bush years. Maybe the NAS report will change that. A copy should land on Eric Holder's desk the minute it's published, and every member of Congress should make it required reading.

The report may also drive federal legislation if Congress adopts its recommendations. Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, who has pushed for forensic reform, said, “My hope is that this report will provide an objective and unbiased perspective of the critical needs of our crime labs.”

You can expect (as does the NAS) considerable resistance to reform from law enforcement agencies that prefer to conduct business as usual.

Donald Kennedy, a Stanford scientist who helped select the report’s authors, said federal law enforcement agencies resented “intervention” of mainstream science — especially the National Academy — in the courts. He said the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Justice Department, tried to derail the forensic study by refusing to finance it and demanding to review the findings before publication. A bipartisan vote in Congress in 2005 broke the impasse with a $1.5 million appropriation.

Bogus science, after all, helps win convictions. And look at the messes that need to be cleaned up when the truth is exposed:

Perhaps the most powerful example of the National Academy’s prior influence on forensic science was a 2004 report discrediting the F.B.I. technique of matching the chemical signatures of lead in bullets at a crime scene to similar bullets possessed by a suspect. As a result, the agency had to notify hundreds of people who potentially had been wrongfully convicted.

Admitting that they've been deceiving juries all these years isn't something that police and crime labs will easily do.

Enforcement officials, [forensic science expert Paul] Giannelli said, “chose to say they never make mistakes, but they have little scientific support, and this report could blow them out of the water.”

It's time for meaningful reform of questionable crime lab practices. The NAS report should make a convincing case for change even if crime lab personnel resent demands for professionalism and independence.

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    police don't make mistakes, (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by cpinva on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:33:34 PM EST
    until they do. juries don't convict innocent people, until they do. crime labs don't make mistakes, until they do. tasers don't kill people, until they do.

    i derive some small measure of comfort knowing that everything in our criminal justice system is working 5 X 5.

    not only do juries expect forensic evidence, they've been conditioned to accept it, without question, as being correct. it is, after all, science.

    until it isn't.

    now you understand why p.t. barnum was so successful.

    It is interesting (none / 0) (#1)
    by jbindc on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:09:40 PM EST
    How much juries also rely on forensic evidence.  I worked as a court clerk to a circuit court judge in Michigan when I was in law school, and I saw many defendants charged with (and guilty of - even their attorneys admitted it) criminal sexual conduct (improper touching), and it was very hard to prosecute them because the juries always wanted to see forensic evidence (specifically DNA). All the prosecutors had to start including a sentence or two in their opening statements that CSI is not all real and that the jury members had to consider all the evidence.

    One of the books in (none / 0) (#2)
    by scribe on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:13:06 PM EST
    Solzhenytsin's Gulag Archipelago begins with a chapter whose theme is "We don't make mistakes", a mantra* of the NKVD, MVD, MGB and KGB in dealing with people drawn into the Soviet prison camp system by mistake.

    And then he devotes a whole chapter to example after example of people imprisoned on false, faulty or mistaken "evidence".

    Someday, some wise-acre defense attorney will decide to take that chapter and frame a cross-examination of a bogus forensic scientist around it, and then make the scientist read how the examples in the cross-examination coincide directly (or even closely) to those in the chapter. And work in a way to remind the jury how that book came to be written and the system it was about.

    Just sayin'.

    * a sound, word or words repeated until all meaning it may have had is lost.

    As one that deals with quality and metrology (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:36:58 PM EST

    I can tell you with 100% certainty that:
    1. People make mistakes.
    2. Samples get mixed up.
    3. Measurement equipment can be inaccurate.
    4. Measurement equipment can be misused.

    5. The testing lab can, and sometimes will, "influence" the results.

    So much for "settled science" (none / 0) (#6)
    by beefeater on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:41:36 PM EST
    How arrogant does one have to be to claim anyone is infallible?

    SOunds Good (none / 0) (#7)
    by squeaky on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:46:41 PM EST
    THe bad faith is astounding, by both the police and prosecutors. No wonder so many innocents go to jail.

    It seems complex because the same people are going to be working and the same methods are going to be used. And if there is any doubt as the the reliability of the forensic methods then it is useless. No wonder that enforcement officials say they never make mistakes.

    So... (none / 0) (#8)
    by jbindc on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:48:21 PM EST
    If all these forensics are bad, what is the REAL number of innocent people in our jails and prisons today?  While any innocent person being in jail is bad, what is the real number?

    I vote for all (none / 0) (#9)
    by Wile ECoyote on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 01:52:16 PM EST
    global warming money to be set aside for training of forensics investigators.

    As a member of the forensic community with (none / 0) (#10)
    by ytterby on Fri Feb 06, 2009 at 07:21:40 AM EST
    many years experience working for both prosecution and defense, I can say that the industry is far below where it should be. One of the major problems is that most forensic labs are run by local, state or Federal governments. The police, ME offices, the FBI, etc. It's very difficult for a new forensic tech to avoid getting caught up in the "us vs. them" mindset. Even without direct police oversight of the lab, the mere fact that the lab personnel interact with the police on a daily basis builds relationships that defense attorneys don't have.

    I remember a prosecutor saying "We both work for the County, so we're on the same side here". Forensic scientists HAVE no side.