Launched by CBS in 2000, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has been called the most successful television series of all time. Between the original series, which ran for five seasons, and spinoffs that include “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY” and “CSI: Cyber,” the TV brand has generated 800 episodes, spawned a number of comic books, video games and novels, and served as the inspiration for a traveling museum exhibit.
Unfortunately, the success of the CSI brand may have played a role in exaggerating the public’s understanding of what forensic science can accomplish, and how objective and trustworthy much of what is presented in court truly is. Scholars dispute whether it has affected jury verdicts, but it has clearly affected public perception of our criminal justice system.
As I state in my book, “Illusion of Justice: Inside Making A Murderer and America’s Broken System,” when crime laboratory technicians testify in court, they are improperly presented as objective experts rather than partisan witnesses. The vast majority of crime labs are housed within law enforcement and prosecution agencies.
A Wall That Is Actually Needed
In order for crime laboratories to be truly objective, they must be independent agencies and they need to build a “wall” to prevent law enforcement and prosecution influence in evidence testing, which occurs commonly in cases that our firm has been involved in, including the murder trial of Steven Avery.
Lab results must be replicable, and should be done “blindly” without the analyst knowing details about the case. Such knowledge can create what is known as “confirmation bias.” All tests should be confirmed by a separate team of lab technicians who do not know the identity of the suspect or what the “right” answer should be.
The Problem Is Well Known
The questionable reliability of evidence produced by crime laboratories to convict the accused is not a newfound problem. Between 2000 and 2008, repeated instances of major crime lab scandals, including multiple instances of fraud and error, resulted in Congress funding a system-wide investigation and review of the forensic science disciplines and related forensic laboratory practice.
The ensuing report by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science In the United States,” was published in 2009. The NAS report confirmed the lack of scientific foundation for the majority of forensic science methods, stating:
“The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity. This is a serious problem. Although research has been done in some disciplines, there is a notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods…”
A Fix Seems Elusive
As far back as the mid-1990s, there were reports of questionable forensic evidence being presented in court. The O.J. Simpson trial shined a light on this pervasive problem. Mistakes by the police laboratory in handling blood samples in the Simpson investigation made it possible to challenge the evidence.
The problem is pervasive. In 2015, the FBI admitted that almost every examiner in its elite hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in almost every trial they testified in for a two-decade period. These testimonies supported the prosecution 95 percent of the time in a sample of 268 cases studied. Thirty-two of the defendants were sentenced to death and 14 have already been executed.
Investigative reporter Jordan Smith summarized five disturbing facts about forensic science for The Intercept in 2015. They range from the falsehoods of bite mark and fingerprint analysis to the uncertainties associated with bloodstain patterns.
Where We Go From Here
There are glimmers of hope that law enforcement authorities at least want things to improve. The FBI has partnered with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to review cases that may warrant motions for a new trial. However, the vast majority of criminal prosecutions are at the state level, which relies on local and state crime labs for testimony at trial.
Until major reforms can be made in crime labs at every level, the presentation of forensic evidence in trials must be identified for what it often is – a presentation of unreliable science by biased individuals in search of a conviction.