Archive for the ‘Book Themes’ Category

I’ll present a talk on my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012) at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus on Wed., March 20.  The talk will be at noon in Room 246 of Drinko Hall, 55 W. 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210.  The event is free and open to the public.

More information on the event is here.

Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012) has been reviewed in Chemical and Engineering News, the publication of the prestigious American Chemical Society.  The review, entitled “Why Criminal Law Ignores Science,” is both enthusiastic and nuanced.  Here’s a slice or two:

The [criminal justice] system desperately needs changes, and it needs them fast. In his book, “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discusses the three most common causes of wrongful convictions, makes recommendations to help right the ship immediately as well as long term, and takes on law enforcement and prosecution that refuse to implement any meaningful changes—even in the face of scientific proof that doing so would decrease the number of wrongful convictions.

This “resistance to sound, science-based police investigative methods” is the theme of “Failed Evidence.” The book is an easy and informative read best suited for policymakers, scientists, advocates, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and anyone with a general interest in the American criminal justice system. Truth be told, anyone who might find themselves sitting in the chair of a juror should read Harris’ book before sitting in judgment of a fellow human.


Harris paints a picture suggesting that together we can make a difference. We will never be perfect, but we can do things much better. “Ignoring science, when doing so increases the risk of wrongful convictions, simply does not square with justice or fairness,” he writes. Positive change must happen and as Harris concludes, “Justice demands no less.”

You can read the full review here.

The current issue of the American Criminal Law Review has a review essay of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012).   According to the review, the book “engages…broadly with forensics” to explore “why law enforcement and prosecutors have shown such marked reluctance to incorporate a modern understanding of the scientific method.”  The review concludes that Failed Evidence “provides a thoughtful analysis of the scientific bases underlying forensics, current evidentiary and investigatory problems, and possible solutions. [The] suggestions are particularly well thought-out because they consider the problems faced by law enforcement when implementing ideal solutions in the real world.”

You can read the full review here.

This week, Jurist, a national and international legal reporting website, is featuring my commentary on Failed Evidence.   Here’s a quick sample:

[The] image of a deep alliance between police work and modern science is misleading at best. With the exception of DNA work and certain kinds of classic chemical analysis, law enforcement generally does not embrace existing scientific work. In fact, police and prosecutors in the US resist science. The scientific work I am referring to involves the testing of the more traditional techniques of law enforcement investigation and prosecution: not the high-tech sheen of the DNA lab, but scientific testing of eyewitness identification, the interrogation of suspects and the more traditional forensic methods such as fingerprint identification. This is the daily bread and butter of law enforcement, and scientists have found it wanting. The science on these basic police investigation methods has existed for years — some of it for decades. It is rigorous, and has undergone peer review, publication and replication. It tells us what the problems with traditional police work are, and also gives us some straightforward ways of solving these problems. Yet, most — not all, to be sure, but most — of American law enforcement continues to resist this science and refuses to change its basic tactics to reflect the best of what science has to offer.

Jurist mixes straight reporting and commentary from the U.S. and around the world; it’s a great source for anyone interested in issues of justice and how it plays out in domestic and international situations around the world.  (Full disclosure: Jurist is supported by my own institution, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and has been guided and run since the beginning by my esteemed colleague, Professor Bernard Hibbitts.)  Check it out.

For those who would like a chance to read a bit of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, the Utne Reader has posted an online version of the first chapter of the book.  You can get to it by clicking here.

The official roll out event for Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, will take place at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Sept. 20, 2012 at 5:30 p.m.  The event is free and open to the public; see the details here.

For those looking to get a sense of what Failed Evidence is about, here’s a brief video clip prepared by NYU Press, called “The Emperor of Forensic Science Has No Clothes.”  Most of us tend to think that forensic science is what makes cases these days.  But aside from DNA and chemical analysis, much of forensic science is open to question.

For members of the media seeking more information, see the Media Info page of this blog.  I will be available in New York from Tuesday evening, Sept. 18, through the event on Sept. 20.

Today Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science is published by NYU Press.  I’ll present a discussion of the book, followed by commentary from a panel of local officials, today at the University of Pittsburgh  School of Law, 3900 Forbes Ave. (Forbes and Bouquet), Pittsburgh, at 5 pm.   The event is free and open to the public.  Events will follow over the coming two months in New York City (Sept. 20), Washington DC (Oct. 3), Baltimore (Oct. 4), Boston (Oct. 24 and 25), Minneapolis (Nov. 1), and Toledo (Nov. 7).  Details for the events can be found on the events page.

WESA FM, Pittsburgh’s Public Radio station, did an interview with me about the book; you can find the audio file here.

This morning the Pittsburgh City Paper, our local alt weekly, ran a long feature story on the book.  Here’s a sample:

Failed Evidence argues that reforms will “benefit not only innocent persons … but also those police and prosecutors.” Recording an interrogation, Harris says, can also prevent a defense attorney from making jurors believe a confession was coerced.

It’s not an easy case to make. Back in 2011, a state panel on wrongful convictions urged that interrogations be recorded, among other reforms. But dissenters argued that police needed “flexibility” to devise their own rules.  Harris says…”My pitch has been that these reforms do good things for you.” But often police “just disregard it.”

…”We’ll never have a perfect system,” Harris allows. But if obvious problems go unsolved, trust in the law itself erodes, and everyone suffers.

“With the justice system,” Harris says, “we’re all in it together.”

You can read the City Paper article here.

You can purchase the book here.


I titled this book Failed Evidence for a simple reason.  Evidence is the proof of facts lawyers use to prove matters in court.  Evidence can take many forms: the statements of the defendant to the police, eyewitness identification testimony, and the results of forensic testing., to name just three important categories.

Twenty-five years ago, before I became a law professor, I was trying cases as a criminal defense attorney and (more briefly) as a prosecutor.  Confessions, eyewitness identifications, and forensic tests were, for the most part, unassailable.  Then came the DNA revolution, beginning in 1989.  With DNA , we could identify the real perpetrator from trace amounts of bodily fluids, with a degree of certainty formerly unimaginable.  But we also learned that, in many cases, routine types of evidence had convicted the innocent.  DNA proved it, just as it had proved the guilt of others.

We now have decades of scientific work and evaluation on confessions, eyewitness identification, and forensics, and we have learned something disturbing: many of our traditional methods of conducting investigations create risks of miscarriages of justice.  Thus, for some of our most common ways of gathering evidence, we fail in an unacceptable number of cases.

But it is the book’s subtitle — Why Law Enforcement Resists Science — that brings the the real failure into focus.  For example, almost four decades of solid science tells us that showing an eyewitness a lineup of similar-looking people — think of any lineup in the movies or on TV that you’ve ever seen — produces a risk of mis-identification.  The science also tells us that we can reduce this risk considerably by showing the people in the lineup to the witness not simultaneously, but sequentially: one at at time.   But most of law enforcement — both police agencies and prosecutors’ offices — have refused to embrace the science and the improved practices this would create.  A few jurisdictions — New Jersey, for example — have changed their procedures based on the science, but they remain a distinct minority.  Most agencies continue to actively resisting any change.

Failed Evidence explains why law enforcement has resisted the scientific work that looks into its most basic tasks, even in the face of DNA-based proof that improvement is badly needed.  Failed Evidence then lays out concrete strategies for overcoming the resistance, with examples of success.

So, for me,  Failed Evidence seemed like the only logical choice for a title.