As we’ve discussed before, there are some serious issues with forensic science. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences reported that most forensic disciplines are not backed up by meaningful science. This includes many common techniques, including bite mark analysis, blood-spatter analysis and even fingerprinting.
In 2015, the Washington Post reported on exaggerated testimony by examiners at the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit. After scrutinizing 268 trials dating back to 1972, the Post reported that 26 out of 28 examiners had “overstated forensic matches in a way that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent” of the cases. As a result, 14 people were executed or died in prison despite serious doubt about the testimony used to convict them.
According to the Innocence Project, misapplication of forensic science is the second most common factor contributing to wrongful convictions — occurring in 45 percent of over 350 DNA exonerations. The nonprofit defines this as the use of invalid disciplines or techniques, mistakes, misleading testimony and misconduct.
It’s a serious issue with wide-ranging consequences. Whenever evidence is gathered incorrectly, mishandled, tested improperly, exposed to invalid testing or the subject of exaggerated testimony, that evidence should not be admitted in court. When it is, the defendant is put at grave risk of wrongful conviction.
This was a major topic of conversation at a recent forensic science conference. Some 1,400 crime scene investigators, forensic pathologists and fingerprint examiners attended the International Association for Identification’s annual International Educational Conference recently. Many clearly understood that the legitimacy of criminal convictions is on the line.
A couple of interesting developments were detailed at the conference. One was the creation of what could be a more accurate method of analyzing fingerprints. A team at the Department of Defense’s Defense Forensic Science Center developed FRstat, software based on a large known-match database and an algorithm. The software produces a statistical analysis of the probability of a match.
Interestingly, some users have been shocked that their evidence was weaker than expected.
Another was the activities of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science, which was set up by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The group of 550 practitioners has been creating evidence-based standards for common forensic techniques such as bit mark and trace fabric analysis. After four years, they have developed 11 such standards, which still need to be validated. They plan to develop 200 more.
The improvements to forensic science won’t be quick, but they are crucial. Juries are almost too trusting of forensic evidence, and it is incumbent on the prosecution and its witnesses to be clear about its reliability.