exclusive focus on Strengthening Forensic Science
Tracking by the National Registry of Exonerations has revealed that of the more than 2000 innocent people exonerated since 1989 from wrongful convictions sometimes decades old, a shocking 24 % had trials that featured improper or invalid forensic evidence. Sometimes this involved deliberately false testimony by purported scientists, but more often it was the result of unvalidated forensic techniques or exaggerated testimony by analysts.
In 2015, the FBI conducted a study of 268 cases where its crime lab analysts provided trial testimony about so-called microscopic hair comparison evidence. That now-discredited forensic technique involved the analyst’s comparison in a double-field microscope of hair found at a crime scene with hair taken from a suspect, and a subjective opinion about whether the two hairs could have come from the same source. Because there were no required standards of similarity, the analyst’s opinion was supposed to be limited to whether the hairs were “similar” or “consistent.”
Shockingly, the FBI’s 2015 study found that in 95% of the cases its own analysts provided false or misleading opinion testimony about the hair evidence. Thirty-two of the cases involved defendants on death row, and 14 had already been executed. While the trials included other evidence besides the misleading hair comparison testimony, the study illustrates just one of many flawed forensic science disciplines that courts have allowed at trial despite subjective and unvalidated theories and techniques.
The advent of DNA exonerations has highlighted the flaws in much of the forensic evidence used in American criminal courts. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States,” surveyed all the various forensic science disciplines, from DNA to hair comparison, bite marks, ballistics and more. The study found nearly all but DNA lacking in supporting validation studies. The NAS recommended many types of reforms necessary to strengthen the reliability of forensic evidence. Yet, nearly ten years later little progress has been made.
CIFS seeks to build on the NAS and other studies to reform forensic science in this country by bringing together true scientists and criminal justice system participants to address the problems of skewed forensic science and its structural causes.