I have been perusing threads in the press concerning dialogue of forensic practitioners about the gaps and misapplications of their forensics in the US criminal justice system. There aren’t many. For the most part, there are a vocal few within the forensic communities who “come out. And, they are NOT working at police managed crime labs. Generally they are older and have “retired out” or quit to enter the private (aka criminal defense) consultant business.
I am not saying that the practitioner communities are not talking about themselves and their methods. That’s been happening in committees constructed by government agencies since the 2009 NAS Report on forensics came out in 2009.
It is telling that despite these collegial activities, the only outcomes of significant “reform” have been the FBI decommissioning their “hair unit” and backing off on “bullet-lead” matching. This was on its own, after years of “prompts” from the news media and lawyer critics. The wreckage of past trials using just these two comparison methods will linger for years. But, the FBI still deserves some kudos their eventual transparency. Then to contrast……
The bitemark “readers” still won’t reveal the cases they have testified in since 1975 after they (really only about 15 of them) cancelled out their long held practice of identifying people from skin wounds in 2013.
From this I must contend that the “reform” of forensic science has been very oddly inconsistent.
Who is responsible? I put it on the orgs that call themselves the “forensic science communities.”
And they are twitchy about “policing” from outside their brethren as shown in a complaint against a couple lawyers gleefully revealed in a blog associated with the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. On to the thesis.
Is the forensic system fractured? Read the following. Two diametric opposite views on how to “strengthen forensics” in the US show how malleable the rules of science become when talking about “forensics.”
A believer of “soft science” stated in an April 2015 NY op-ed, as a counter-point to the article’s including IP co-director Peter Neufeld’s column, “You can’t fix the system’s use of forensic science unless you fix the science”, (he talks about science) suggests a means to let a judge decide what is reliable forensics before presenting it to a jury. This is disappointing, as that’s the system which is already in place in the US justice system. His tonic includes experts “telling the strengths and weaknesses” of their opinion.(this is more about a “believe me” system). So much for cutting-edge solutions to an endemic problem. This is well documented in the press as”overeager” or downright “exaggerating” adherents of police “science” developed to aid convictions and, as they say, “protect the innocent.” This seems to have had lesser success. See Fixing the flaws in forensic science.
Here is retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s crime lab director and prior AAFS/ASCLD/IAFS president Barry Fisher talking about “soft science.”
If you are a fan of “C.S.I.” or other police TV shows, you might be surprised to learn that crime labs, the heroic center of those programs, are under fire. While many call forensic science an essential part of modern police work and point to the thousands of criminal cases solved through the application of science, others have derided it as “junk science.”
Experts can explain a method’s strengths and weaknesses even if they can’t scientifically prove that it implicates a defendant.
Defense lawyers, legal scholars and academic scientists frequently claim that work done by the nation’s public crime labs is flawed; testing procedures are not always trustworthy and sometimes result in unreliable conclusions. So-called pattern evidence analysis is particularly at issue, with the ability of examiners to conclude that an item from a body or crime scene is associated with one person, and only one person, most heavily doubted.
Fingerprint examinations, firearms testing, shoe print and tire impression evidence are suspect. Bite mark evidence is especially singled out as unsound. Handwriting comparison has come under scrutiny. Can absolute assertions about such evidence be made?
Judges generally allow experts’ testimony if their conclusions are based on knowledge, skill, experience, training or education in the techniques involved, and can help the jury understand the evidence. The testimony must be based on reliable principles and methods, reliably applied.
But what happens when the evidence in question and the techniques used do not meet all the standards for admissibility. Should the expert’s opinion be kept from the jury?
A judge should allow expert testimony that can help the jury in its deliberations, provided the expert can explain the strengths and weaknesses of the method used, including its inherent limitations. Experts should be able to explain, in detail, the extent of their education and training in the area that they are testifying about and provide information about the research that supports their conclusions. They should inform the court about the known error rates in the procedure used, as well as the information about the procedures used to test the evidence. This information will help the trial judge decide whether to let a jury hear the expert’s opinion, and help jurors understand its reliability.”
Dear Barry, This form of judicial “reliability testing” hasn’t worked well with some of our forensic non “error rate” colleagues. Cheers, Mike
In closing: Some of us are impatient. Evidence to these emotions are based on how long it took to successfully get rid (please ignore the few remaining survivors of strident believers) of voice-print identification, graphology, hand writing profiling, composite bullet lead comparisons, positive bitemark identifications (w/out DNA), hair matching as promulgated by the FBI, and the new beginnings of re-education to correct flawed arson investigations.
PS. Please read John Lentini’s piece about arson science in the Judging Forensic Science article.