Some random thoughts on forensic science

While at the ACS press conference last week, I was asked by an international reporter my thoughts on the current state of affairs in Forensic Science by a Brazilian science reporter. I wanted to share my answers with you all and see if there are different points of view that may be out there. So what do you think?

Q: How can we best assess the role of forensic science in the courtroom nowadays?

A: Right now, the best analogy that can be used to explain the scientific state of affairs in forensic science is that of the Wild Wild West. There is no oversight. It’s not unlike the old quick draw contests. Each laboratory is free to set up whatever protocols it wants with no need to prove the validity in its testing before it is being used. It is an exciting time to be involved in forensic science and in the Innocence Project as we all believe that we are starting to see the taming of the Wild Wild West. We hope that law and order will be brought to the crime laboratories where only validated forensic science makes its way into the courtroom.

Q: I understand the important role that DNA analysis holds in forensic evidence. How important is it for the trial itself? Can it be considered the final evidence? And when it goes wrong what do we do?

A: While DNA evidence is important and can be crucial, there are two important caveats to place on it. First, we must recognize and understand that badly conducted and badly interpreted DNA is not only bad, but can be the most dangerous form of science at all. The perceived infallibility of DNA can give a dangerous veneer of science when the results are in fact closer to science fiction. The second caveat is context. We need to be aware of the context of the DNA evidence in the broader context of the case. Often times, a lack of useable DNA leads to an inappropriate conclusion that there can be no exoneration. There have been 297 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. Of those 17 were on death row!

Q: How much should we rely on forensic evidence, specially a DNA test? Is that the right question or are we stuck with this “badly fragmented” system?

A: To be clear, there is some forensic science that is done correctly by highly trained people. However, the difficulty becomes that there are some fantasy-like forensic tests and rouge scientists who either through ignorance or through mal-intentions seek to pervert justice. The problem is that the “bad apples” of the bunch do not wear name tags that say that they are bad.

Q: Do the new technologies help solve improper past convictions?

A: The greatest guard against false convictions is greater scientific education within the legal system. Judges, prosecutors, and especially criminal defense attorneys need to know the forensic science used in the courtroom. By and large that is starting to happen, but not nearly quickly enough.

Q: A jury tends to rely a lot on the forensic evidence offered in a case, what are the cautions that should be considered?

A: In my opinion, the scientific method has to be used in evaluating science. Jurors need to be scientific skeptics and seek to falsify the hypothesis that the crime laboratories submit. All to frequently, jurors blindly accept the crime laboratory’s analysis without much thought.

Q: How can we judge the progress towards standardization in the forensic science community? Is it a major concern? How does the absence of standardization influence the proper interpretation of the analysis undertaken?

A: We need look no further than the FDA with GLP laboratories, EURACHEM and the EPA with their standardized methods to see that standardization works and it works well. It is all about commutability in the measure and uniformity in the interpretation of the data. Why on earth there is no standardization and a wholesale lack of validation in forensic science? It is frightening. It is a sad commentary on what we truly value in our society.

Q: How far must we go to continue the struggle for basic validity of the testing that is presented in court?

A: It is the major question before us. Do we really want to put the science in forensic science or do we want to continue on towards the path of forensic science fiction? While it is true that in the long enough scale science is self-correcting, for example, the Earth was discovered not to be flat. It is a heliocentric, not a geocentric solar system. The tragedy is that we do not have the luxury of time in the forensic arena for this all to self-correct. These cases are real people whose lives are ruined and even some put to death while we struggle for basic validity.

5 Responses to “Some random thoughts on forensic science”

  • James Dean "Jimmy" says:

    Hey Justin, Im on the west coast and I have a ridiculous case of driving on a valid prescription. It has turned my life upside down. I cant obviously blog about the circumstances. Anyways, Ive watched your youtube videos on duid, excellent by the way. Read your blog. I hired an atty last year so I dont need a referral but as a scientist, everything you write and speak about. Hits me like a hammer to the head because it’s exactly what I was thinking, how can a slightly trained DRE make a medical diagnosis in a person? Particularly those of us who have known neurological illness for which the prescription was written for!
    Do you have a book, ebook, complete video series available? Something that ties all this down. If I was in PA Id be your client b/c we speak the same language (scientific sanity). But since my science discipline is medicine, not law and forensic testing. I need a bridge, a book. If you dont have one, write one.
    If you have a couple GB of writings send them to me. Ill edit them into an epub ebook and put it on amazon (I have the time since I cant work until this is resolved). Anything, everything that I can scour through.
    Just saying, good stuff but we need more of your brain on science. Perhaps I can fly to Pennsylvania and perform a Vulcan mindmeld. Tell me you got a book that I havent found

  • Regarding you response to this question from a Brazilian Reporter:

    “How can we best assess the role of foren­sic sci­ence in the court­room nowadays?”

    I do NOT disagree with you.

    But, this is really broad. Forensic Science encompasses entemology, chemistry, biology, anthropology, forensic dentistry, archeology, tool marks, ballistics and DNA to name a few.

    I would say there is a lack of appreciation for how broad Forensic Science is as a field.

  • Very very true. In our CSI, everything is a “match” short-cut to thinking world, we tend to pigeon-hole things into simple categories. The challenge is discovering and promoting the limitations of all of this so that the fantasy of forensics is the reality of science. Thanks for the comment.

  • Responding to this question and answer only:

    “Q: Do the new tech­nolo­gies help solve improper past convictions?

    A: The great­est guard against false con­vic­tions is greater sci­en­tific edu­ca­tion within the legal sys­tem. Judges, pros­e­cu­tors, and espe­cially crim­i­nal defense attor­neys need to know the foren­sic sci­ence used in the court­room. By and large that is start­ing to hap­pen, but not nearly quickly enough.”

    These acquittals and reverses of injustice have only had a chance of happening when a case INVOLVES THE SCIENCES DISCUSSED HERE. Other cases based on witness identification or some other form of evidence do not have a chance.

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