Archive for the ‘Resisting Science’ Category

Good news: Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science is the Feb. 4 selection by, a service that highlights and quotes new works for a large community of readers. provides daily subscribers with “an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, primarily historical in focus, and will occasionally be controversial. Finally, we hope that the selections will resonate beyond the subject of the book from which they were excerpted.”  Other recent selections have included Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies; Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815; and Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.



I will be presenting a talk on my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science on Thursday, Jan. 31 at noon at the University of Toledo College of Law.  The College of Law is located at 2801 W. Bancroft, Toledo, 43606.  The talk, in the McQuade Auditorium, is free and open to the public.  Copies of Failed Evidence will be available for purchase and signing.  Further details on the event are here and here.

The talk will be recorded by WGTE, Toledo’s public television station, for its “Knowledge Stream” programs.

One thing that makes this presentation different from all the others I’ve done on Failed Evidence: I taught at the College of Law for almost 18 years, so for me this will be a kind of homecoming.  I’m hoping for the chance to see many friends.

The current issue of Science magazine contains a review of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012).  Here is a brief excerpt from the review:

Although science has long been recognized as our most reliable pathway to truth, people are sometimes reluctant to accept scientific evidence, particularly when it challenges established practices or cherished beliefs. In Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, David A. Harris accuses police and prosecutors of unwarranted skepticism toward science and tries to explain their perspective. His provocative book will interest those concerned broadly with rejection of science as well as those interested in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

An article titled “Lawyers, Saying DNA Cleared Inmate, Pursue Access to Data” tells the story of the case of Joseph Buffey, a man imprisoned in West Virginia for 70 years for rape.  And Buffey’s story tells us something disturbing: control of DNA evidence in most states is in the hands of law enforcement.  Unfortunately, this can block defense efforts to get at the truth.

Buffey’s case features something common to more than a quarter of DNA exonerations: he confessed, and later entered a guilty plea and apologized, at the urging of his lawyer.    But Buffey then recanted his confession and maintained his innocence.  Years later, defense lawyers got the physical evidence tested, and the DNA did not belong to Mr. Buffey.

Defense lawyers then asked the state to run the sample against the state’s DNA database (known as CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System).  The idea, of course, was that the DNA might have come from a person whose DNA was already in the database.

The state of West Virginia’s reaction: no thanks.  According to the article, the authorities in West Virginia said that “the state does not believe such testing will or can prove the defendant’s innocence after his guilty plea.”  West Virginia is one of the other thirty-one that do not give a defendant the right to have the sample run through the DNA database.

After 18 months of legal wrangling, West Virginia agreed to the test.  The result: the DNA belongs to a man incarcerated in another state prison with a history of assaulting women.

Naturally, Buffey’s lawyers are now working to get him out of prison.  But the more important thing to notice is that in West Virginia, as in most other states, DNA databases, constructed at great public expense, remain in control of one party to criminal cases: the prosecution.  They, and they alone, decide whether testing will be done, and under what circumstances.  And while we can certainly hope that requests to run DNA through the database will be granted, it can also be withheld when the state simply decides that this is not in its interest.

But the article contains something I had not seen before.  Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association is quoted as saying that he sees the failure to run DNA samples through CODIS as a problem that must be solved.

We, as law enforcement and prosecutors, are obligated to seek the truth and follow the evidence, and DNA should be entered into Codis,” said Burns.  “It seems like there should be laws for it, and I agree that the defense should be given the information.

Hats off to Mr. Burns and the NDAA if this is their official position.  (I say “if” because they have not always been open to such changes.)  In the next few days, I will attempt to confirm that the impression given by the story — that the organization would join in an effort to assure that DNA in a case like Buffey’s should be run — is correct.

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.

Yesterday, I wrote about the November 13 article in the New York Times that described how police had turned to sophisticated science involving isotope analysis to determine the geographic origin of corpses.  The article focused on the case of a Jane Doe in a 41-year-old murder case in Florida.  The science is fascinating; it allows the authorities to pinpoint where the victim came from with startling precision.  The Jane Doe in Florida, who had been thought to be a white or Native American woman from North America, grew up in Greece and had probably been in the U.S. for less than a year.

Why, I asked, had law enforcement so heartily embraced the science that could do this work,  even as most of law enforcement continues to ignore or resist more basic science on traditional methods of investigation, like eyewitness identification, interrogation of suspects, and old-school forensics?  Here are a few possible reasons:

1) In the Jane Doe case and the others discussed, there was no real alternative.  The cases were old, and most ways of investigating that could be tried had been tried, with no results.

2) The colder a serious case gets,the more likely that police will be open to trying new or untested approaches.

3) The type of science used — hard science, chemical analysis, very traditional sorts of science work — is appealing, in a way that the sorter science challenging eyewitness identification, for instance, is not.

4) The science described in the article does not challenge what police already do and believe in.  Therefore, it does not disrupt the status quo or challenge existing ideas about police expertise, while science about eyewitness identification, interrogation and traditional forensics challenges those things very directly.

My gut is that answers 1) and 4) probably do the most to explain what we see here.  What do you think?

The main point of my book Failed Evidence is to explain the real reasons that law enforcement resists science, and with that understanding to enable us to break through that resistance in order tohave better police work that reflects the best scientific  knowledge that we have.

So what a relief to find an example of law enforcement embracing science in a big way.

In the November 13 New York Times, “Jane Doe Gets a Back Story” tells how police have been aided by science in some very cold cases.  They have turned to isotope analysis to pinpoint the geographic origin of some unidentified human remains, and scientists have been able to do this with almost uncanny precision.  In other words, the scientists have not been able to identify the corpses, but they have pinned down where they came from, which might then lead to an identification.  The case featured in the article involved the frozen body of a woman found floating in a lake under a highway overpass northeast of Tampa, Florida, forty-one years ago.  The best guess was that the woman was white or Native American, and 17 to 24 years old.  Police got nowhere with this scant information.

Fast forward to this year, when scientists used shavings of tooth enamel and bones to come up with some “startling” findings:

The best evidence suggested that she grew up in Greece and came to the United States less than a year before she was killed. (Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa, has a large Greek-American population.) The research, according to Detective [Darren] “turned the case upside down.” Based on the findings, he provided information for an article that was published Oct. 11 in The National Herald, an international Greek-language newspaper. It was accompanied by the new reconstructed image of the victim and her clothing.

The case is still not closed. The woman’s identity has not been determined, and Detective Norris acknowledges that it is still a long shot. But he is confident that he is on the right track. “The best lead that has ever come in this case came because of the science,” he said…

What’s fascinating to me is the strong embrace of this scientific work by the police.  Because as readers of Failed Evidence know, that is not a given.  So what accounts for that embrace, while science on far more basic and common law enforcement methods like eyewitness testimony, interrogation of suspects, and basic forensics gets rejected?