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Examining the Evidence

Defining the Need

A conviction can result in loss of property, liberty, or even life, but studies show that the scientific testimony leading to a conviction isn’t always as reliable as one would hope.

Failures of Scientific Evidence

Because a conviction can result in loss of property, liberty, or even life, it’s paramount for scientific evidence to be valid and reliable. However, studies show that scientific testimony is not always as reliable as one would hope when such fundamental rights are at stake.

One study by Brandon Garrett and Peter Neufeld in 2009 examined 137 trial transcripts of exonerated persons who were convicted (at least partly) by forensic testimony, such as serology, hair analysis, and DNA testing. The report concluded that nearly 60% of the analysts called to testify by the prosecution did so inaccurately, and that defense council rarely crossed the experts on their testimony, or called their own experts.

It’s important to note that some experts believe the 2009 study to be flawed.

Recognizing The Flaws

In recent years, hundreds of innocent people have been exonerated by DNA evidence. In over 50% of these cases, misuse of forensic science was a factor in the wrongful conviction, involving such improprieties as:

  • The use of techniques not previously validated
  • Overstatement or misrepresentation of results in court
  • Fraudulent / fabricated results

These problems arise in cases for a number of laboratory-based reasons but also because judges and attorneys fail to recognize flaws in the science they’re presented.

Making decisions based on blind trust of what might be faulty scientific testimony can ruin the defendant’s life, be financially costly and detrimental to an attorney’s career. Moreover, when the judicial system fails to produce sound results, it can diminish public trust.

Addressing The Need

DNA analysis is revered as a “gold standard” in forensic techniques. Unlike many forensic science disciplines, it’s considered consistently trustworthy. The complex reason for the disparity between the perceived reliability of DNA testing and everything else might be reduced down to one word: funding. The situation is aptly called out in Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward:

“The development of scientific research, training, technology, and databases associated with DNA analysis have resulted from substantial and steady federal support for both academic research and programs employing techniques for DNA analysis. Similar support must be given to all credible forensic science disciplines if they are to achieve the degrees of reliability needed to serve the goals of justice. With more and better educational programs, accredited laboratories, certified forensic practitioners, sound operational principles and procedures, and serious research to establish the limits and measures of performance in each discipline, forensic science experts will be better able to analyze evidence and coherently report their findings in the courts.”

It’s important to note that some types of testing and long-standing disciplines will never reach the reliability of DNA analysis because of the nature of the science behind them. Various types of forensic evidence can be problematic. But there is a pronounced potential—and a vital imperative—to move the needle forward. For more information, see Disciplines in Forensic Science.

Response: Past And Present

In a response generated soon after A Path Forward was released in 2009, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced S.B.132, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2011. The bill sought to establish a multidisciplinary board with the authority to evaluate current forensic procedures, establish standards and best practices, and develop a plan to increase understanding of forensic science in the legal and law enforcement communities.

In 2013 the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established a National Commission on Forensic Science to strengthen the inner-workings of the forensic science system, and thereby, the justice system itself.

Commission members (forensic scientists, researchers, attorneys, judges and other stakeholders) were charged with developing policy recommendations for the Attorney General in such areas as uniform codes for professional responsibility, training standards, and requirements for certification. In a much-needed effort to open channels of communication among practitioners, this initiative takes a big step toward aggregating all forensic disciplines under federal guidance – with input from state and local participants – to validate existing forensic science standards, and develop new methods for testing.