The myths behind forensic science

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 29, 2009 @ 11:59 AM — Comments (3)

Popular Mechanics has published an article in their August 2009 issue on faulty forensics and its role in wrongful convictions.

On television and in the movies, forensic examiners unravel difficult cases with a combination of scientific acumen, cutting-edge technology and dogged persistence. The gee-whiz wonder of it all has spawned its own media-age legal phenomenon known as the “CSI effect.” Jurors routinely afford confident scientific experts an almost mythic infallibility because they evoke the bold characters from crime dramas. The real world of forensic science, however, is far different. America’s forensic labs are overburdened, understaffed and under intense pressure from prosecutors to produce results. According to a 2005 study by the Department of Justice, the average lab has a backlog of 401 requests for services. Plus, several state and city forensic departments have been racked by scandals involving mishandled evidence and outright fraud.

But criminal forensics has a deeper problem of basic validity. Bite marks, blood-splatter patterns, ballistics, and hair, fiber and handwriting analysis sound compelling in the courtroom, but much of the “science” behind forensic science rests on surprisingly shaky foundations. Many well-established forms of evidence are the product of highly subjective analysis by people with minimal credentials—according to the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, no advanced degree is required for a career in forensics. And even the most experienced and respected professionals can come to inaccurate conclusions, because the body of research behind the majority of the forensic sciences is incomplete, and the established methodologies are often inexact. “There is no scientific foundation for it,” says Arizona State University law professor Michael Saks. “As you begin to unpack it you find it’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff.”

A lot of the issues talked about in the article are ones we have discussed many times in our blog. The public trusts too much in methods they’ve been convinced are valid, when in fact there are no set standards behind these forensic procedures and results vary from one “expert” to another. The article also points out that in a Congress commissioned report form the National Academy of Sciences it was stated that “apart from DNA, there is not a single forensic discipline that has been proven ‘with a high degree of certainty’ to be able to match a piece of evidence to a suspect.” As a result of junk science, hundreds of people have been wrongfully incarcerated and innocent people are still sitting in jail while the true perpetrators roam free to commit more crimes.

The reason forensic science doesn’t work is because, quite frankly, it isn’t a science at all! It was developed by law enforcement trying to catch their man based on patterns from previous criminal cases, no scientific method or testing was implemented. Still, the methods were accepted and implemented for years until recently.

Although most of the examples in the article we have covered before, I urge everyone to read it to get a better understanding of why forensic science doesn’t work and why DNA is the only current scientific testing we can trust in criminal cases.


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