Forensics: Taking apart the “science” of matching objects and patterns to innocent defendants

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An extensive review of forensic exaggerations brought into criminal courts. Only two US states have statutes allowing appellate review of cases where junk forensic experts run amok. 


“The legal concept of newly discovered evidence including a change in science,” says Chris Fabricant of the Innocence Project, who is litigating Genrich’s case, “is in my view a no-brainer. It was presented to a jury as infallible, and today we know it’s not. There is an obligation—an ethical, a legal, and a moral obligation—to go back and correct the record where exaggerated claims may have led to a miscarriage of justice.” When Bert Nieslanik called up the statistician on a hunch that the science was flawed, she was a voice in the wilderness. There was no scientific consensus to support her. Fabricant says that “in a way, she was ahead of her time.”

“Calculating how many people might be incarcerated based on erroneous “matches” is notoriously difficult, but according to the Innocence Project, faulty forensic science is a factor in about half of wrongful convictions. More conservative estimates from the National Registry of Exonerations and from academic studies peg the number at between 24 and 34 percent. Many prosecutors and judges, however, insist there is no problem and that wrongful convictions are vanishingly rare. In 2007, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited a prosecutor claiming courts convict with an “error rate of 0.027 percent—or a success rate of 99.973 percent.” The prosecutor had divided the number of known exonerations over a 15-year period (a few hundred) by the total number of felony convictions in that period (15 million). It is wildly unlikely, however, that all wrongful convictions have been discovered. One academic study estimates that in capital cases—which receive far more post-conviction scrutiny than do other cases—one in 25 people set to be executed will have been wrongfully convicted. However you crunch the numbers, they are appallingly high, and could mean that thousands of people are behind bars partly because juries were swayed by unproven ”science.” ”

Full article from The Nation

About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
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