Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let's put the science back in the science labs

Today in the New York Times:

US February 05, 2009

Science Found Wanting in Nation's Crime Labs By SOLOMON MOORE Link

Forensic evidence is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded, a draft report found.

This isn't much of a shock to defenders. We've been aware of the bad science that has been convicting our clients, but we've not always gotten our message across in court. Complaints about rampant problems in state crime labs haven't yielded much change in the way those labs do business. And the results are almost never excluded from court.

A huge part of the problem is that the labs doing the forensic testing for criminal cases have become far too connected to law enforcement, sacrificing independence and scientific integrity. Too many folks who do the forensic testing for criminal prosecutions are more interested in being cops than scientists. They watch shows like "CSI" and "Crossing Jordan" and have visions of being the ones who nail the bad guy. But a good scientist can't care what the result of the test will be. Or overstate the significance of a test result.

A major problem is that agencies like the FBI or state counterparts often drive the "discovery" of new techniques, like blood splatter analysis or the now-debunked lead analysis that the FBI claimed could determine whether a spent bullet came from a particular batch of ammunition. The investigators trying to build a criminal case against a suspect have an agenda, so they probably shouldn't be creating the techniques that will be used to tie a suspect to a crime. Bias and science are not a good mix.

I hope this report does come out strongly in favor of overhauling the way forensics labs throughout the country do business. Changes are overdue. Science can play such a powerful tool in criminal prosecutions that we really ought to make sure we are using it well and justly. We need to make sure we convict people on science, not on faith.


mikeb302000 said...

That's a fascinating take on the old "faith vs. science" theme. As usual, I think you've got it exactly right.

Dan said...

Thought you'd "like" this. County Attorney under investigation for threating to withold support of a county medical examiner if their assistant didn't stop assisting the defense of a murder trial.

S said...

Sadly, Dan, prosecutors do that kind of thing all the time. It's actually kind of encouraging to see someone thinks it's worth investigating.

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