Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Accuracy optional in forensic science?

The Washington state legislature says scientific readings taken by faulty equipment can be used to convict on DWI charges.

With that type of convict-at-any-cost mindset among the tough-enforcement crowd, it's no wonder we see the problems that surfaced with Texas crime labs, or that there's a national crisis in the reliability of forensic science.

Forensic science isn't "objective" science, it's goal oriented. Police scientists tend to find the answers prosecutors want because, as a Dallas scientist testified to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in Houston, it's prosecutors who tell the scientists what avenues of inquiry are "probative" -- in other words, prosecutors tell the scientists what questions to ask, not defense attorneys. If defense counsel want to ask their own scientific questions - for example, to perform tests that might exclude the defendant as a suspect - the defendant must pay for outside lab testing, or convince a reluctant judge to release the funds.

Forensic science is contextual, not neutral, and outside the classroom it's always employed with a purpose. In court, innocent people get roped in by bad science largely because the purpose of the science is to convict, not to exonerate. In Washington state, now they've made that behind-the-scenes truism official.

Hat tip to the DUI blog for a great post on this, by the way, which earns Mr. Taylor a place in the "Often checked" column, since he is.

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