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.