Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Forensic Evidence From Crime Labs Is Not Scientifically Sound: Will Texas Judges Take Note of Latest Warning From Experts?

Forensic evidence isn't scientifically sound and this is a truth that has been heralded for years by criminal defense attorneys - but maybe this cruel reality will get more attention in 2013 after a major editorial was published in the newspaper serving the state capitol this past weekend.  In the Sunday edition of the Austin American Statesman, a former forensic guru with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a professor at Texas A&M joined together in an editorial entitled, "Make forensic evidence meet standards of science."

What is forensic evidence? 

Forensic evidence is essentially the stuff that comes out of a crime lab and is used by prosecutors to put people behind bars as they argue that the forensics are reliable and sound evidence in their case.  It's what makes up television shows like the CSI series and it's what has convicted many men and women who were unwavering in their protests that they were innocent. 

Forensic evidence includes things like:
  • fingerprint evidence
  • glove print analysis
  • ballistics
  • bloodstain pattern analysis
  • footprint evidence
  • facial reconstruction
  • video analysis 
  • trace evidence
  • profiling.

Forensic evidence is not trustworthy nor is it scientifically sound

Scientists have already warned that DNA evidence can be fabricated. Fingerprints are not reliable either as evidence in a criminal case seeking conviction with jail time or worse.

Crime labs across the country are notorious for being "seriously deficient," to quote a study performed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2009.  The American Bar Association has joined in the concern that bad evidence is being used by prosecutors to convict people and that American crime labs are not to be trusted. 

The Innocence Project has delved into the failure of forensic science as it has exonerated innocent victims of bad evidence and finds that in:

"...90-95% of crimes, DNA testing is not an option - so the criminal justice system relies on other kinds of evidence, including forensic disciplines that may not be scientifically sound or properly conducted....[M]any forensic testing methods have been applied with little or not scientific validation and with inadequate assessments of their robustness or reliability.  Furthermore, they lacked scientifically acceptable standards for quality assurance and quality control before their implimentation in cases. ...." 
The 2013 Warning to Texas Judges and Texas Courts

This week's editorial comes from Professor Cliff Spiegelman and FBI veteran forensic scientist William A. Tobin. These two men are well known for their expertise in forensic circles and their joint effort is slowly spreading over the web (Grits for Breakfast picked it up  already, so has Charles Smith).

What are Professor Spiegelman and FBI scientist Tobin warning?  From their editorial:
For decades, largely unrealized by judges, many of the forensic practices admitted into judicial proceedings have been without scientific foundation or any other logically acceptable basis other than observational (inductive) study by experimenters untrained in experimental process.

Most troubling are the declarations of certainty associated with proffered expert opinions in those unfounded practices as expressed by examiners in criminal proceedings, such as in firearm/toolmark identification....

When examiners confidently declare individualizations (specific source attributions) between crime scene evidence and evidence seized from an eventual defendant without adequate foundational statistical studies, the testimony constitutes nothing more than intuited opinion or speculation, even if an educated guess, rather than evidence-based testimony.
Let's hope that some judges read the newspaper or surfed the web this week.  And perhaps the public at large will gain more insight into the dangers of forensic evidence that criminal defense attorneys know all too well:  those TV shows aren't reality, and stuff coming out of crime laboratories here in Texas isn't beyond suspicion.

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