Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The National Academy of Sciences has now published its report of its 2-year study of the nation's crime labs. As predicted in the February 5 preview of the report, the academy concluded that our nation's crime labs need a major overhaul. From the CNN story:

In its report published Wednesday, the academy showed there is a serious lack of uniform standards, training and oversight. And, with the exception of DNA technology, the report concludes experts often overstate how much can be determined by forensic techniques running the gamut from fingerprinting to bite mark and hair analysis.

The report notes that, with the exception of DNA, "no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source." (Caveat: DNA does not always mean guilt, either.)

One major concern to me is the way forensic experts overstate their cases. They use bad science to get marginal results, but then sell them to the jury as if those results are irrefutable proof of guilt. Evidence that the general public has come to believe are indisputably unreliable, like fingerprints and firearms testing, are actually questionable at best. There are no national standards about what is required to declare a match in either of these areas. In firearms testing (to determine whether the bullet in a case came from a specific gun), the Academy questions whether those testing methods are reliable or even repeatable. In the scientific world, a test that isn't repeatable isn't worth anything.

I am convinced that one of the major problems with our nation's crime labs is bias. Our nation's forensic labs have allowed themselves to become driven by a desire to catch the bad guys, sacrificing science along the way. They aren't independent labs searching for the scientifically supportable answers. Instead, they are run by the police, the state bureau of investigation, of even the prosecutor's offices. Even those that are technically independent are subject to threats if they don't follow the prosecution line. (See this story out of Minnesota.) Science labs that put science second to anything should not be allowed to help put my clients behind bars.

The Academy has recommended some good ideas for improving the state of our nation's crime labs. They recommend that Congress create a national institute to formulate standards and regulate training and accreditation. I would hope this institute would also involve some form of certification. Lawyers can't just get training; they have to pass a bar exam before they can appear in court. I would like to see all forensic "experts" have to be similarly certified by passing a standardized test. The Academy also recommends that crime labs be removed from control by police departments and/or prosecutor's offices. Meaning situations like the one in Minnesota, where a county attorney's office questioned the local medical examiner's willingness to work with a defense team to the point of threatening to withdraw any future support for the medical examiner, would be prevented. I believe the Academy's point is that the scientific experts should be free to follow the science to whatever result is right, instead of being expected to find only results that are beneficial to the prosecution.

The Academy's report contains the conclusions I reached on my own through years of criminal defense work. All of the scientific experts who testify in my cases are employed by the KBI or the local police department or might as well be. I hope the Academy's concerns will be taken seriously and I hope their recommendations will be implemented quickly. This mess has been allowed to be the norm for way too long.

2 comments:

mikeb302000 said...

I share your hope that the findings of such an august body as the National Academy of Sciences be taken seriously. It doesn't take an insider to see how slanted the system is.

Your writing and ideas are a pleasure to read, as always.

S said...

If only insiders would start to acknowledge how slanted the system is! But courts have blinders on when it comes to seeing the major, fatal flaws in most of the junk that passes as science in criminal cases.

Don't even get me started on the lack of scientific basis for the DUI laws! Many DUI statutes are written in such a way that the defense can't even refute the charges by proving the state's breath test has such a high margin of error that the defendant's actual BAC could be under the legal limit.

I'm no scientist, but the lack of honest scientific methods behind the stuff that passes as science in a courtroom bothers me from an academic standpoint, let alone from a justice perspective!

 
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