Saturday, February 7, 2009

Forensic "science" under fire

According to the New York Times, a report to be issued this month by the National Academy of Sciences will be a "sweeping critique" of many forensic methods, such as fingerprint analysis, firearms identification, bite mark and blood spatter analysis, used in crime labs across the country.

According to a draft copy of the report, these analyses often are conducted by poorly trained lab workers who then testify to exaggerated accuracy of their methods. The report will call on Congress to establish a federal agency to ensure the independence of forensic analysis, most of which is conducted in labs under the control or authority of law enforcement agencies.
I'm sure that every defense attorney in the country is waiting for this report to come out. There are going to be challenges to fingerprints and firearms evidence and the general lack of empirical grounding. It's going to be big. -- Unnamed source
The F.B.I. had to shutter its bullet identification program after the pseudo-science behind the analysis was discredited. The F.B.I. was forced to notify hundreds of citizens who may have been convicted wrongfully as a result of the "evidence."

The Innocence Project turned over the results of a study performed on the trial transcripts of 137 convictions that were later overturned. In 60% of those cases, false or misleading statements were made regarding blood, hair, bite mark, shoe print, fiber and fingerprint analysis.

According to Stanford University scientist Donald Kennedy, who helped choose the authors of the report, the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of "Justice," refused to finance the study -- because they knew what it would conclude. Congress later voted to provide $1.5 million to fund the project.
"My hope is that this report will provide an objective and unbiased perspective of the critical needs of our crime labs." -- Sen. Richard Shelby (R. Alabama)
Here are a few examples of the sad state of forensic scientific analysis:
  • The H.P.D. Crime Lab was shuttered due to a series of scandals. An independent auditor authored a report in 2007 severely criticizing the practices and procedures followed by the lab.

  • Dee Wallace, a contractor with the Texas D.P.S., who testified in support of the state's breath test program falsified documents regarding maintenance work she never performed on the machines under her control. The Galveston County District Attorney's Office recently had to mail out notices to over 2,000 citizens whose DWI convictions may have been tainted by Ms. Wallace's criminal acts.

  • Forensic "scientist" Joyce Gilchrist who was fired by the Oklahoma City Police Department after it came to light that she faked test results, falsified reports, lied on the witness stand and withheld exculpatory evidence.
To her credit, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has called for the creation of a regional crime lab independent of law enforcement.

As long as forensic analysis is conducted at "crime labs" operated by law enforcement agencies, there will be pressure on analysts to make their findings and conclusions fit the "facts" as determined by the police. Until these labs are divorced from law enforcement, their findings and conclusions will be under suspicion.

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