Wednesday, April 18, 2018

There once was a lab analyst...

Oh the fun and games over at the Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences never seem to stop. Last week a lab analyst was fired for not following proper lab procedure when testing a substance to determine if it was marijuana.

A lab analyst is supposed to perform both a chemical analysis as well as a microscopic analysis. Only after both tests have been run can the analyst record a positive result.

The analyst was discovered after the lab manager viewed high-resolution video of the analyst testing the substance.

It doesn't matter that when another analyst performed a microscopic analysis that the substance was found to be marijuana. The fired analyst "dry-labbed" the results which brings into question the results of any test performed by that analyst.

This episode points out (yet again) the difference between science and "forensic science."

Science is interested in answering the questions what? why? and how? A scientist observes a phenomenon and comes up with a hypothesis that answers one of the questions. The scientist then conducts experiments with the goal of disproving the hypothesis. If the experiments don't disprove the hypothesis then we may have a new theory. If the experiments disprove the hypothesis, then it's back to square one.

Science is replete with failures. In fact, it is through failures that we learn. Failures cause us to rethink our theories and to come up with new experiments. It's precisely because the failure rate is so high that scientific successes are celebrated as much as they are.

"Forensic science," on the other hand, isn't interested in discovering anything. The sole interest of the forensic scientist is to produce evidence that can be used by the state (or sometimes the defense) at trial. The junk science fields of dental recognition, tool mark analysis and bullet composition analysis, among others, came about because law enforcement needed ways to develop more evidence to support their arrest decisions.

They were allowed to proliferate because judges, who, for the most part, were not schooled in hard science, were appointed gatekeepers of scientific evidence. As a gatekeeper, the judge's role was to determine whether the offered scientific evidence should be admitted at trial. Unfortunately, most judges decided to let it all in and leave it up to the jury to determine what was junk and what wasn't.

The irony, of course, is that judges in civil matters, where money is at stake, tend to be much more strict in their decisions to allow, or disallow, scientific evidence to be presented than they are in criminal cases where the defendant's life is at stake. The results of this policy are illustrated by the large number of exonerations we have seen over the past decade or so. Juries across this country sent innocent men to prison (sometimes even death row) based on junk science that judges allowed into evidence.

So long as this divide exists between science and forensic science, we will continue to see more shenanigans in crime labs and more junk science presented to jurors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If the Texas Forensic Science Commission would get up off it's collective bloated asses and do their job as required in CCP 38.01 instead of giving the crime lab's a free pass (as the accreditation agencies have done for the past decade), then lab problems such as this wouldn't be an issue. The fired analyst was never questioned about his/her intention. I'm willing to bet a lab Supervisor told him/her it was ok to disregard this procedure, then threw the analyst under the bus when it was discovered.