Friday, November 30, 2012

'Forensic science falls short of public image'

A pair of stories from Stateline, which is a project of the Pew Center on the States, hone in on the gap between perception and reality on the reliability and efficacy of modern forensic science:
The first of the two stories praised Texas perhaps a tad too effusively for its oversight of forensic science: See a notable excerpt below the jump.
It would be unfair to say states have ignored the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences report. They are moving, albeit slowly, to provide more oversight of forensic labs and build in protections against wrongful conviction. In many cases, the states that have seen major problems in their crime labs have developed the most elaborate systems of oversight.
Texas, which arguably has the most sophisticated forensic oversight of any state, is no stranger to crime lab scandals. In 2002, a Houston TV station aired an investigative report exposing mishandling of DNA evidence in the lab there, and after the lab’s own investigation, all DNA testing was suspended indefinitely. Over the next five years, investigators reviewed 3,500 cases and found that analysts had fabricated test results, lost track of evidence and allowed a roof leak to contaminate DNA samples. So far, two convicts have been exonerated based on the findings of the investigation.

As a result of the problems revealed in Houston, the state began to create an infrastructure to deal with wrongful convictions and provide avenues to investigate claims of misconduct in the state’s crime labs. In 2005, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate any and all claims of misconduct in the state’s labs. Its jurisdiction was later limited to cases where evidence was tested or introduced on or prior to September 1, 2005.

Texas also has conviction integrity units, both in the Dallas district attorney’s office and at the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state court for criminal cases. These units, which also exist in the district attorney’s offices in Manhattan, Detroit (Wayne County) and Chicago (Cook County), are made up of attorneys and judges who reevaluate any case where there are allegations of misconduct, both in forensics and in other aspects of the investigation. In Texas, the legislature appropriates $18 million every two years for continuing legal education for the criminal justice system in new research and practices to avoid wrongful convictions

“We’re educating everyone on these topics so that we’re all on the same page,” says Judge Barbara Hervey, who sits on the Court of Criminal Appeals and heads the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit. “Everybody needs to know something about different forensic sciences and the big issues about admitting scientific evidence.”

So far in Texas, the commissions seem to be having the desired effect. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has evaluated more than 40 complaints and made many recommendations to the state’s crime labs, all for about $250,000 per year. Because Texas has a system in place to deal with potentially wrongful convictions, it is equipped to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of the Boston crime lab problem in a way Massachusetts was not.

“If we got (a situation) in the door that had 30,000 cases, it would be hard, but we could handle it because that’s what we do,” says Lynn Robitaille, chief counsel for the Texas Forensic Science Commission. “One thing that you learn is how to prioritize cases and how to conduct a retesting program that makes sense and has the greatest possible impact without bankrupting the entire system. If you’re doing it for the first time with a crisis of that magnitude (like Massachusetts), it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
Though the Texas Forensic Science Commission looks like a big improvement compared to what other states are doing, it's only beginning to hit its stride and remains hindered by statutory restrictions (as interpreted by a regressive Attorney General opinion) that too greatly limit its effectiveness and the scope of its work. Moreover, the agency is toothless, unable to exact meaningful sanctions even when they find negligence or misconduct. And the Court of Criminal Appeals, while promoting public education on the topic through Judge Hervey's Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, in its rulings continues to prevent re-evaluation of flawed forensic cases via writs of habeas corpus. Still, by comparison, Texas has taken more steps to address flawed forensics than most other states. The remainder of the series provides a good overview of recent forensic scandals and issues in other jurisdictions and is well worth the read.

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