Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in the case of Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts, and the gist was this (SCOTUSblog):
Now, if prosecutors want to offer a crime lab report as evidence, and the report was prepared with the aim that it would be used at trial, the prosecution has to bring along the author or scientist and make them available for questioning by the defense — if the defense insists on the right to confront the analyst.
Before, it was often enough to offer up the report written by an analyst, or to simply enter the report into evidence, without having the author themselves present for cross-examination. No longer. The response from civil libertarians has been elation.
Justice Antonin Scalia, the Confrontation Clause’s most devoted defender on the Court, wrote for the majority: “There is little reason to believe that confrontation will be useless in testing analysts’ honesty, proficiency, and methodology — the features that are commonly the focus in the cross-examination of experts.”
An important part of this victory is an admission by the Court that the conclusions of forensic science reflect the scientists who perform it in one important way – they are imperfect.
The opinion recited a good deal of information from published reports about how defective crime labs and their results are, and said that claims that lab reports are the product of “neutral scientific testing” are open to challenge because such reports are not “as neutral or as reliable” as advertised. “Forensic evidence,” Scalia wrote, “is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation.” (emphasis added)
Scalia goes so far, in his opinion for the majority, as to note the “risk of manipulation,” implying that results from crime labs are sometimes purposefully falsified, altered, or suppressed. While the malicious tampering is certainly a possibility, and does happen, I choose to focus instead on the possibility that scientists can be honestly mistaken. Besides being charitable, I reason that way because I think the thought process of the general public is something like this: (1) Scientists and the State do not meddle; they maintain honesty and integrity; (2) Scientists rarely (or never) make mistakes. I believe that arguing against the first point will meet more resistance, while people will be surprised by, but receptive to, the claim that scientists can make mistakes.
Either way, Scalia’s opinion notes both possibilities, and it’s refreshing to see that. Putting the analysts themselves on the stand is possibly the best way to ensure reliability and accountability in forensic testing.
Here is a roundup of reactions from around the net:
- Innocence Project: U.S. Supreme Court: Forensic Science Has ‘Serious Deficiencies’
- SCOTUSblog: Analysis: Law need not bow to chemistry
- Grits for Breakfast: SCOTUS: Forensic reports require cross examination of analysts
- TalkLeft: Supreme Court Rules Defendant Has Right to Live Testimony of Lab Chemist