National Academy of Science crime labs report, CSI affecting crime labs, DNA evidence debate

Report Shows Flaws in America’s Crime Labs

February 20, 2009 09:01 AM
by Anne Szustek
According to a study released by the National Academy of Sciences, most crime-lab evidence is not dependable enough to allow in court.

Nation’s Crime Labs Are “Seriously Deficient”

The state of the nation’s forensic science labs has come under fire with the Wednesday release of the National Academy of Science’s report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”

The findings, issued by the federal government’s main scientific advisory board, point to a lack of uniform standards across crime labs as the underlying cause of crime labs’ apparent inaccuracies, as well as the fact that they are often administered by police departments or prosecutors rather than forensic scientists.

“Science should serve the law. Law enforcement shouldn’t drive the science,” federal Judge Harry T. Edwards, one of the co-chairs of the 17-member panel, was quoted as saying by MSNBC.

DNA was cited as the one form of crime lab evidence reliable enough to be admissible in court testimony as a true “match” to a person. Even hair, bites, fibers and tool marks—long considered viable evidence resulting in convictions—are not dependable enough to be used in court, according to the study. Only “massive overhaul” will be enough to improve the nation’s crime labs, the report continued.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for one, is reviewing 1,000 cases involving fingerprints after it emerged that two people were wrongfully accused due to incorrect analysis of fingerprints, reported the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, though not commenting on details in the report, said that “We need to devote a lot of attention and a lot of resources” to shoring up crime labs.

The current recession may cut into crime departments’ budgets for improvement, however. In the meantime, the panel behind the report suggested that crime labs and employees seek certification.

Pop culture stands to shoulder some of the blame for overreliance on forensic science. The popular television program “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has been called out by the reports’ authors as casting crime lab techniques as “science at work,” NPR reported. “After watching blood spatters analyzed and carpet fibers tweezered night after night, there may be a sense out there that forensic evidence is infallible” among not just viewers, but judges and lawyers as well, writes NPR.

Background: DNA analysis is helpful yet controversial

Courts are increasingly relying on DNA testing, and genetic analysis has helped free 232 wrongfully convicted people across the United States. More than half of those cases involved incorrect forensic evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

But genetic science in the courtroom is still a cause for controversy. Dennis Rader was convicted of killing 10 people in Kansas after his daughter’s DNA tied him to the crimes. Unbeknownst to Rader’s daughter, investigators had obtained a court order to examine a Pap smear taken from her at a medical clinic. Some privacy advocates object that such practices “turn relatives into genetic informants.”

Related Topic: Concerns arise over potential bite-mark database

Last year, researchers at Marquette University announced the creation of a computer program to decipher bite-mark characteristics, stoking debate about the admissibility of such evidence.

Dr. L. Thomas Johnson and his team compiled 419 bite impressions from soldier volunteers in Wisconsin for the study. Johnson is planning to gather more samples throughout the country.

Bite marks have been used to convict suspected criminals for more than 40 years. In one of the most famous examples, serial killer Ted Bundy was found guilty of murdering a Florida State University student in 1978 after evidence linked his dental impression to bite marks on the victim’s body.

Critics say bite-mark testimony is unreliable, however. The Innocence Project, for one, blames bite-mark testimony on the false convictions of numerous individuals who were later exonerated by DNA evidence. The project cites a study indicating a “63.5% rate of false identifications.”

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