Friday, October 19, 2012

'Forensics on Trial': Texas forensic commission at forefront of vetting forensic errors

PBS's NOVA on Wednesday ran a show titled "Forensics on Trial" (you can watch it online) with the following promo description:
There is a startling gap between the glamorous television world of “CSI” and the gritty reality of the forensic crime lab. With few established scientific standards, no central oversight, and poor regulation of examiners, forensics in the U.S. is in a state of crisis. In "Forensics on Trial", NOVA investigates how modern forensics, including the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, ballistics, hair, and tool marks, can send innocent men and women to prison—and sometimes even to death row. Shockingly, of more than 250 inmates exonerated by DNA testing over the last decade, more than 50 percent of the wrongful convictions stemmed from invalid or improperly handled forensic science. With the help of vivid recreations of actual trials and cases, NOVA will investigate today’s shaky state of crime science as well as cutting-edge solutions that could help investigators put the real criminals behind bars.
Faulty forensics are important and account for a statistically significant proportion of exonerations, but IMO they're a much less common direct cause of false convictions than things like eyewitness error, ineffective defense counsel, and police or prosecutor misconduct. Forensics are usually used as corroborative evidence after an arrest has been made and with a few notable exceptions (e.g.,, DNA and fingerprint matches, DWI evidence) are seldom the sole evidence pointing to a defendant's guilt. Still, it's certainly on the short list and, as the Forensic Science Commission's reviews have shown, there has been a significant amount of error and incompetence to be rooted out in Texas state crime labs. The PBS report doesn't mention Texas, but it should be noted that the Texas FSC represents a pioneering effort at state-level forensic oversight, which has continued even after the cameras stopped rolling in regards to the whole Todd Willingham brouhaha.

True, the FSC's findings have no "teeth" and are sometimes spun rather generously toward the labs. OTOH, labs have been surprisingly compliant with their investigations, and if you agree sunlight is the best disinfectant, then exposing problems in detail serves a significant function. (I've learned a lot.) Plus, assistance by DPS, ASCLD/LAB, the Court of Criminal Appeals' "integrity unit," the state fire marshal, the Innocence Project of Texas, and other entities has given the FSC an extended  reach which would otherwise remain beyond their grasp. No one involved could fail to find fault with various aspects of the Texas FSC's processes, particularly when John Bradley was chair, but also before and after. However, a reform bill carried by state senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, which nearly made it through the process last session and is expected to pass next spring, may ameliorate some of the most pressing limitations on the agency's authority.

Texas has focused its attention on issues surrounding forensic (and for that matter, eyewitness) errors more intensely than almost any other state. Before the NAS report was even begun, Texas labs had to be accredited by 2005, the year the FSC was created. So the state deserves credit for beginning to wrestle with these questions well before the National Academy of Sciences' much-publicized 2009 report on flaws in forensic analysis, though that certainly gave the FSC a much-needed jump start. All this to say, despite the Forensic Science Commission's rather odd makeup and some fixable, structural flaws, its detailed investigations provide much more information about what's going on in state and local crime labs than Texas ever had before the commission ramped up its efforts.

We're only at the beginning of an era when the scientific method is being applied to historically accepted forensic products, and the results so far have been a mixed bag. But at least Texas has created a mechanism capable of documenting crime-lab problems about which, a decade ago, we perhaps wouldn't even be aware. The NOVA special is right that we're in an era when forensic sciences are "on trial." But to the extent forensics is science, it should be constantly put "on trial," and I'm gratified that Texas has created a mechanism, however flawed, for doing so.

MORE: From Boing Boing.

1 comment:

DNA Testing said...

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