Monday, November 10, 2008

SCOTUS to hear debate on whether forensic science is objective or testimonial

SCOTUSBlog and Doc Berman let us know that the US Supreme Court today will hear oral arguments in Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachussetts, a case I've been watching (see prior Grits coverage) because it will determine whether forensic technicians should be subject to cross examination at trial under the Constitution's "Confrontation Clause."

Anybody who thinks lab experts don't require vetting need look no further than the recent Texas Department of Public Safety case where:
During a routine audit, DPS breath test employees found that electronic records had been altered to make it appear that the technical supervisor had inspected breath test instruments in several locations when the contractor had not in fact examined them to ensure that the calibrations were accurate.
There are many other examples where forensic technicians clearly deserved to be vetted. Forensic science is not neutral or objective like work by scientists who perform basic research. Forensic science is goal-oriented, often performed by people who consider themselves as much cop as scientific expert, plus many forensic disciplines based on expert comparisons are quite subjective and subject to high error rates.

I hope attorneys and Justices at the Melendez-Diaz oral argument delve deeply into this question of the relative neutrality and objectivity of forensic science. If they do, I've little doubt they'll conclude forensic results are "testimonial" evidence that defendants should have a right to confront at trial.

RELATED: At Talk Left, Jeralyn informs us that thousands of DWI cases in Arizona may be tossed over an essentially similar confrontation issue - the vendor who makes the breathalyzer machines refuses to reveal their source code, even in defiance of a judicial order.

2 comments:

Soronel Haetir said...

I wouldn't be so sure that scientists doing basic research are any more objective than crime lab workers. The incentives may be somewhat different but they still point in the same direction "Produce results the boss likes."

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