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Forensic science: Driving catalyst of wrongful convictions?

On Behalf of | Mar 26, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

Actually, that question mark concluding the above header query can be safely removed, with the headline simply stated as a fact-based assertion.

Because there is really no question about it: Notwithstanding advocates’ routine praising of forensic evidence that plays into criminal probes and convictions, there is actually quite a bit wrong with the “science.”

In fact (and as established time and again by careful research and vetted studies), the oft-asserted claim of forensic evidence infallibility is sorely undermined by legions of glaringly unjust outcomes linked with it.

A Colorado criminal law legal source touched upon that hype-versus reality aspect of forensic science in a recent article. It duly noted the dichotomy between a widely held public perception that such evidence “is always correct” and the fact that “its reliability is overstated in court as much as 95% of the time.”

That disconnect obviously leads to starkly adverse results for high numbers of individuals facing legal challenges. Myriad and broad-based commentators urgently stress a need for criminal justice authorities and law enforcers to materially improve their techniques and standards and tie their conclusions to more accurate and informed analysis.

Key report findings on forensic evidence issues and concerns

Although “experts” weighing in on forensic findings have often been accorded absolute trust by courts and juries, the same free pass has not been routinely granted by serious researchers in well regarded studies. One in-depth overview of forensic science issues authored by the advocacy group Innocence Project points to two such efforts carried out in recent years. Those reports centrally underscored these problems:

  • Inaccurate and exaggerated testimony leading directly to unsound conclusions
  • Select techniques (e.g., hair analysis, bite marks and tire/shoe tread impressions) not being sufficiently vetted by objective evaluation in the scientific community
  • Lack of up-to-date judicial training “in the evaluation of forensic evidence and state of validation of various forensic techniques”

Recommended forensic evidence reforms

Those who point out flaws in forensic evidence techniques and analysis do not argue for a diminished scientific role in criminal law matters. Rather, they argue for higher proof thresholds and standards that render truly unimpeachable results. Here are some of their recommendations:

  • Closer oversight role for the preeminent National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Higher level of government funding for research and development
  • Establishment of uniform national standards to guide evidence assertions/conclusions in courts all across the country
  • Implementation of an affirmative duty to correct errors and notify adversely affected parties of mistakes
  • Commitment to retrospectively review cases featuring evidence problems

Science is an overwhelmingly powerful tool having immense implications in the criminal law sphere. Its application in any given matter must be fair, solidly based on the highest degree of objectivity and always subject to challenge.