Thursday, February 05, 2009

US justice system commonly relies on shoddy forensic 'science'

The New York Times offers a preview of a long-awaited report from the National Academy of Sciences critiquing shoddy, unscientific forensic techniques that are routinely used throughout the American judicial system ("Science found wanting in nation's crime labs," Feb. 5):
Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.

The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.

The result of a two-year review, the report follows a series of widely publicized crime laboratory failures, including the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., and Muslim convert who was wrongly arrested in the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000.

American examiners matched Mr. Mayfield’s fingerprint to those found at the scene, although Spanish authorities eventually convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty. Mr. Mayfield was released, and the federal government settled with him for $2 million.

In 2005, Congress asked the National Academy to assess the state of the forensic techniques used in court proceedings. The report’s findings are not binding, but they are expected to be highly influential.

“This is not a judicial ruling; it is not a law,” said Michael J. Saks, a psychology and law professor at Arizona State University who presented fundamental weaknesses in forensic evidence to the academy. “But it will be used by others who will make law or will argue cases.”

Legal experts expect that the report will give ammunition to defense lawyers seeking to discredit forensic procedures and expert witnesses in court. Lawyers could also use the findings in their attempts to overturn convictions based on spurious evidence. Judges are likely to use the findings to raise the bar for admissibility of certain types of forensic evidence and to rein in exaggerated expert testimony.


Anonymous said...

Charles Kiker here:

Interesting that this article cites Senator Shelby of Alabama, hardly a bleeding heart liberal, as one recognizing the need of forensic reform.

Anonymous said...

This report couldn't possibly apply to Las Vegas ("CSI"), Miami (CSI: Miami), or New York ("CSI" New York").

Anonymous said...

Almost all the science we have is less than 200 years old.

To put that another way: all of the science that Christopher Columbus used to get here is now obsolete. In the modern world it would be "shoddy" for someone to use the science of the 1490s. That was 150 years before Isaac Newton was even born!

Anyway, the point is, Columbus did manage to get a correct result in spide of his shoddy science. Or maybe the result wasnt exactly correct because he wasn't where he thought he was. To be fair, even the science of Ptolemy could have told him he wasn't actually in India; but he ignored that because he wanted to believe that he made it all the way.

The only certain thing in science is that all our current theories will one day be obsolete. That doesn't we can't use our existing science to make cool things like computers and cell phones. It also doesnt mean that our cell phones become somehow "invalid" or "shoddy" if the science underlying their function or manufacture is upgraded.

Anonymous said...

Great - Now we have people who are guilty that will likely go free and people who are innocent that are sitting in prison all because the american justice system can't be bothered with little things like adhereing to scientific or ethical standards.

What a sorry shame.

Anonymous said...

Charles Kiker here:

Maybe I'm a little dense--some folks would say no maybe about it--but I don't quite get the relevance of MattCurie's post to the CJ system. Of course ol Chris's science is now obsolete, but he got "here" anyway? Not really! At least he didn't get where he thought he was going, and when he got where he was going he wasn't where he thought he was! Even if currently used forensic science occasionally produces good results, updating it can't hurt.

Anonymous said...

"Even if currently used forensic science occasionally produces good results, updating it can't hurt."

And NOT updating it certainly can.

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with MattCurie. Any scientific method that gets a "good" result by serendipidy is no more scientifically reliable than a flip of a coin. That's what's known as a "SWAG: Scientific-wild-assed-guess."

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:04,

We know the feeling in Bexar we were even able to prove how faulty the urinalysis lab was and still the probation department stayed with the same lab.

A Voice of Sanity said...

It's not just the 'real' science poorly done that is the problem; far too many prosecutors are prepared to use, and courts accept, rubbish that some self important 'expert' simply made up with no conscience since 'everyone knows the accused is guilty'.

Let us all salute Daubert as it sinks silently into the sea never to be seen again.

Anonymous said...

Even when the science says one thing, the Courts are likely to do another - look at the incredible record of the CCA in repeatedly approving the admission of entirely unscientific predictions of future dangerousness in capital cases. The American Psychiatric Association et al. have been saying for over 20 years that these predictions are incorrect more often than not, but the CCA simply turns a blind eye to this deadly form of junk science.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the Chief probation officer in San Antonio who IS responsible for FALSE IMPRISONMENT of probationers because of his FAULTY UA lab!
Waht a LOSER!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

My name is Zenneia McLendon and I work for the National Academies. We appreciate your comments on the National Academy of Science report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United State: A Path Forward”. We encourage your readers to visit us at to get a copy of the pre-publication of this widely anticipated report, or to read it online.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is a year later, but if some future looker sees this, then it will have been worthwhile.

I am preparing to try an Intoxicated Assault case, that is now over 3 years old.

I requested from the manufacturer and received the "User's Manual, Vol. I & II"; and the "Operator's Manual." I am not a chemist or toxicologist, but after reading through the manuals and making notes; then comparing the manufacturer's suggestions of what needed to be done to its' gas chromatograph machine before each test and what the SOP is for a Texas DPS lab, it is terrifying.

I may not win the case, but the toxicologist and blood expert are going to have known they were in a fight. There are many necessary steps to ensure an accurate test that are eliminated, that, even if I would have had to buy the manuals, it would have been worth the money. I now know and feel that I am doing the best I can for my client. I feel the state and the labs are cheating and have been cheating all this time, but no one calls their hand/bluff.

To defend a client, a lawyer needs to have a degree in chemistry, etc., or be fortunate enough to have a client that can hire an expert to counter what the paid lips (actual word starts with "W" and ends with "E" with 3 letters in the middle) always testify too and on the accuracy and reliability of their infallible, computerized gas chromatography machine, that has been removed from service.

Get the manufacturer's manuals to keep the paid lips honest.

A Voice of Sanity said...

If you have a college in your city, try to hire a chemistry student to advise you.

When the state's 'expert' says that, "In my opinion ....." ask him for 10 examples that confirm his statement.

If he claims that xxxx follows from yyyy ask him to walk you through the research.Too many cases are based on BS and bluster. Poke holes in them both.