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Why forensic 'evidence' may not be evidence at all

What constitutes evidence in a criminal trial? More importantly, what constitutes solid and irrefutable evidence? Anyone who has seen any of the dozens of television crime dramas would tell you that forensic science is the objective truth. Sadly, shows like “CSI” are far more fiction than fact – particularly when it comes to the reliability of forensic science.

A recent article in Slate Magazine discusses a very disturbing reality that most Americans are not aware of. Aside from DNA analysis, there is no forensic practice that is widely accepted as scientific by the science community. In 2009, a committee for the National Academy of Sciences took a hard look at popular forensics analyses and found that all but one (DNA) were unreliable.

These included:

  • Common types of fingerprint analysis
  • Common types of hair analysis
  • Bite-mark analysis
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Ballistics reports

Contrary to what most of us would assume, nearly all forensics tests were developed exclusively by and for law enforcement agencies. Forensics labs are not governed by any central agency, nor are tests scrutinized to determine if they are reliable or unreliable. Moreover, lab technicians often conduct tests after being briefed on the case by prosecutors. Even if they try to remain objective, the risk of cognitive bias remains high because they know what test outcome prosecutors are looking for.

It is unsettling to think of how many innocent individuals may currently be in prison or even on death row because jurors and others placed too much confidence in forensic test results. If you are facing criminal charges and worry about how forensic evidence may influence the outcome of your case, please seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Source: Slate, "Forensic Science Isn’t Science," Mark Joseph Stern, June 2014

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