An article posted on Stateline (published by the Pew Center on the States) on November 26, “Forensic Science Falls Short of Public Image,” nails many of the problems with forensic science in the U.S. But readers will have to go beyond the references to “the CSI effect” and how this troubles police and prosecutors. For those who read further, the real problems surface: the inherent weaknesses in traditional (non-DNA, non-chemistry based) forensic methods, along with lack of supervision and protocols, occasional outright fraud, lack of judicial knowledge about these issues, and prosecutorial unwillingness to recognize these problems.
“In fact,” says the article “the whole field of forensic science is currently in flux, following a top-to-bottom review in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report cast major doubt on many common forensic techniques, calling them unscientific and error-prone.” According to Judge Donald Shelton, a trial court judge in Michigan’s Washtenaw County who has written about forensic evidence, it is particularly troubling that judges don’t seem to understand just how serious the problems with forensics are, even though the National Academy of Sciences report could hardly have been clearer. “One of my concerns, “he says, “is that these forms of evidence that we know from the National Academy of Sciences report aren’t valid, are still routinely offered and routinely admitted by judges.”
I do have to take issue with the writer’s comment that Annie Dookhan, the lab analyst who seems to be responsible for most or all of the huge numbers of fraudulent lab tests in Massachusetts was “led” to do this by overwork, underfunding, and case backlogs. I bet that her fellow analysts who did not falsify lab results in the same lab under the same conditions would beg to differ. But the article (part one of a two-part series) is still well worth a read. In addition to the on-target points about the science of forensic science, it also discusses a number of the recent crime lab scandals in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minn., Texas, and Detroit.