Whether we see a criminal suspect being questioned by police on TV police dramas, or on the many true crime shows on cables’ Investigation Discovery Channel (ID), there always seems to be a scene involving “Lie Detectors”. That lie detection machines are not considered as providing reliable evidence in criminal trials is a function of the fact there is no scientific basis for their use. However, despite their lack of reliability, Law Enforcement authorities still use these tests as both a means of hectoring suspects and as an indication of guilt if the suspect refuses to take one. The reality is that no one being questioned by police should ever agree to take a “lie detector” test because they are completely unreliable. Lie detectors are but one example of the the “junk science” use by law enforcement investigators to “solve” criminal cases.
The CSI Television Franchise has been a group of the most popular dramatic shows on network television. These shows center around the work of Crime Scene Investigation Teams employing forensic science to solve cases. There are many more TV shows where forensic science serve as their central premise. What these shows have created in the minds of many Americans is an almost religious belief in the findings of forensic science. Most juries are made up of people who have followed these shows and so are predisposed to believe the forensic evidence prosecutors present in actual criminal court cases.
A big part of the problem with believing in the forensic science as it is presented in these crime shows is that the viewer always knows the guilty party. This sets up a situation where the question of the show is no longer “who did it”, but how do we bring the perpetrator to justice. Bringing the “perp” to justice is invariably based upon the findings of forensic science. Since the viewer knows the “guilty” party, there is a rooting interest in their arrest and conviction. In truth because of the viewers knowledge of the guilty party, there becomes little questioning of the legality of the methods used leading to punishing the guilty. Viewers really don’t care if their is a violation of the guilty parties rights because they deserve punishment. When you add seemingly “overwhelming” forensic evidence into the mix, how satisfying the concluding punishment must be? As we are learning though, there is strikingly conclusive evidence that the so-called field of Forensic Science, actually has little scientific basis and the evidence this “science” provides is unreliable determining guilt. Sadly, prosecutors and police refuse to accept this new evidence and will continue to use this junk science to catch and prosecute people, some of who could well be innocent. The evidence of the lack of reliability of standard forensic findings was detailed in a report “rejected” by our nation’s criminal justice establishment.
A short piece posted last week by the Wrongful Convictions Blog provided links to various reports on the unreliability of forensic science and the response of the law enforcement establishment:
“We had hope, back in 2009, when the National Academy of Sciences report Forensic Science in the United States; A Path Forward was published, that there might finally be some remedy for all the junk science being used to convict innocent people. The report painted a scathing picture of the lack of true science contained in, and the invalidity of, traditional forensic disciplines; the sole exception being DNA. The report did spawn the creation of the Federal Commission on Forensic Science, which has proven, over the last three years, to be a totally toothless tiger, accomplishing essentially nothing.
Now recently, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has issued an additional report that is highly condemning of current forensic practices. You can see the PCAST report here: pcast_forensic_science_report_final
HOWEVER, even in light of this recent report, both the FBI and the Department of Justice have stated they have no intention of changing the way they currently address forensics.
Please see the Intercept article, FBI AND DOJ VOW TO CONTINUE USING JUNK SCIENCE REJECTED BY WHITE HOUSE REPORT, by Jordan Smith here.”
In our America we find that there exists various “Industry’s”, whose main self justification beyond profit is maintaining and expanding their power. The Criminal Justice Industry is one such “Industry”. This industry is made up of all the nations’ judiciary, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and those working in the various prison systems. While the minions of this “Industry” claim the most pristine of ethics and their unvarying goal of protecting the public, the truth is that the majority of “workers in this industry” are more interested in service to themselves and their needs.
Badly Fragmented’ Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul;
Evidence to Support Reliability of Many Techniques Is Lacking
“WASHINGTON — A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research. Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.
Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to “match” a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source. Non-DNA forensic disciplines have important roles, but many need substantial research to validate basic premises and techniques, assess limitations, and discern the sources and magnitude of error, said the committee that wrote the report. Even methods that are too imprecise to identify a specific individual can provide valuable information and help narrow the range of possible suspects or sources.
“Reliable forensic evidence increases the ability of law enforcement officials to identify those who commit crimes, and it protects innocent people from being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit,” said committee co-chair Harry T. Edwards, senior circuit judge and chief judge emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “Because it is clear that judicial review alone will not cure the infirmities of the forensic science community, there is a tremendous need for the forensic science community to improve.”
Strong leadership is needed to adopt and promote an aggressive, long-term agenda to strengthen forensic science, the report says. To achieve this end, the report strongly urges Congress to establish a new, independent National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts, establish and enforce standards for forensic science professionals and laboratories, and oversee education standards. “Much research is needed not only to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of current forensic methods but also to innovate and develop them further,” said committee co-chair Constantine Gatsonis, professor of biostatistics and director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University. “An organized and well-supported research enterprise is a key requirement for carrying this out.”
To ensure the efficacy of the work done by forensic scientists and other practitioners in the field, public forensic science laboratories should be made independent from or autonomous within police departments and prosecutors’ offices, the report says. This would allow labs to set their own budget priorities and resolve any cultural pressures caused by the differing missions of forensic science labs and law enforcement agencies.
A New York Times Op Ed from 5/2/15 discussed the 2009 report in the context of six years after it was issue:
“As miscarriages of justice piled up, it became essential to understand precisely how the criminal justice system made such mistakes and how to prevent them. Troublingly, about a quarter of the cases examined by the Innocence Project (on whose board I now serve) involved forensic scientists who had erroneously claimed to identify defendants with near-certainty by matching hair samples, fibers, shoe prints or bite marks.
There were clearly fundamental problems with forensic science. A 2009 report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, found that apart from DNA testing, no forensic method had been rigorously shown to consistently and reliably demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific person.
Then, several years ago, three men from the Washington area — Kirk Odom, Santae Tribble and Donald Gates — were exonerated in separate cases. They had served more than 70 years in prison in total. In each case, F.B.I. examiners had told juries that the defendant’s hair matched hair at the crime scene, based on microscopic hair analysis. One prosecutor put the odds at perhaps one in 10 million that the hairs belonged to someone other than the defendant. (In fact, subsequent DNA testing found that none of the hair samples matched the defendant, and that one was from a dog.)
Those cases proved to be a turning point. To its credit, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the Innocence Project to review F.B.I. testimony about hair analysis in more than 2,500 cases in more than 40 states from 1985 to 1999. The results of the first 268 cases examined were reported Sunday in The Washington Post. The review found that F.B.I. testimony was fundamentally flawed in 257 of those cases — a stunning 96 percent of the total. Of those defendants, 33 received the death penalty and nine have been executed so far. Although the errors don’t necessarily mean the defendants are innocent — other evidence might have supported conviction — the F.B.I. plans to notify prosecutors and prisoners of the findings.
The problem is not limited to hair analysis. Last month, Alabama released a man from death row who had been convicted 30 years ago based solely on ballistics evidence; the state now concedes that the bullets in question did not actually match the weapon used. A few years earlier, Mississippi released two men who had been convicted of separate murders based on testimony that their teeth perfectly matched bite marks on the victims. After the true killer was later identified by DNA, experts concluded the wounds were not human bites after all but were most likely caused by crawfish and insects nibbling on the corpses.
The Justice Department, in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, took an important step to bring rigor to forensic science in 2013 by appointing a national commission on the issue. It has had a rocky start: Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a federal judge in Manhattan, resigned from the panel in protest in January when a Justice Department official sought to limit the panel’s scope, but returned when the department reversed that approach. The commission, most of whose members are tied to law enforcement or involved in current forensic practice, now needs to listen to its independent panelists and get down to making rigorous recommendations.”
And so it goes with the American Criminal Justice System. It is the reason that I wrote these pieces The Law is a Whore and The Law is a Whore….Redux where I wrote about the the tendency of prosecutors on a levels to value conviction, rather than actually punishing the guilty party. The prosecutor though are but one aspect of what is wrong with the American Criminal Justice System. I also wrote about other aspects of it in Cheap Justice, Bad Law = Broken System and America’s Broken Criminal Justice System. There are literally so many things, so wrong about our criminal justice system that we have no business having the smug feeling had by most of us that we are the land of justice. In America, justice is truly blind and not in its original meaning that our justice is impartial, interested only in true guilt. Our justice system is blind to the truth of guilt, deeming expediency and law enforcement ego as more important.
Forensic science is truly junk science. Prominent among those rejecting these reports is the FBI, which public relations has made the “gold standard” in criminal justice science. This is a reputation that is undeserved. Perhaps the most glowingly extolled section of this Agency is the FBI Crime Lab, heralded as being the state of the art when it comes to forensic evidence and investigation. Like so much about the FBI, its forensic expertise is merely a myth built upon relentless public relations campaigning. A story from the AP shows the reality of the “forensic” evidence offered by the FBI and how wrong that myth may be:
“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000, The Washington Post reported.
Twenty-six of the 28 examiners overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, the Post reported, citing information from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project.
The organizations are assisting the government with the post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence and provided the statistics under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions, the Post reported.
The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death; of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the Post reported in a story posted on its website. FBI Acknowledges Flawed Forensic Testimony.”
Think of that. In 14 cases where people have either been executed or died in prison, FBI experts gave false or deceptive forensic testimony that favored the prosecution.
“The review confirmed that FBI experts systematically testified to the near-certainty of “matches” of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work, the Post reported. In reality, according to the newspaper, there is no accepted research on how often hair from different people may appear the same. Since 2000, the lab has used visual hair comparison to rule out someone as a possible source of hair or in combination with more accurate DNA testing.”
Now if the FBI has consistently spun “forensic” evidence to favor prosecutors, what are we to make of State and Local crime labs? Was the “slam dunk” forensic evidence offered in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson tainted by a need to cover up the faults in the Ferguson PD? Who knows? Americans have been fed a diet of those slickly produced CSI shows that are always based on the “science” of forensics. The “science” except for DNA, perhaps, is just not that scientific, but who cares as long as the “bad” guys get their just desserts? Convinced by the propaganda of popular media, based mainly on fiction, there seems little sympathy in our citizenry about innocent lives destroyed by our criminal justice system and even less by those doing the destruction. Whenever I am overloaded with publicity about the “forensic” evidence in a given criminal case it makes me suspicious, but then again, maybe I’m just a malcontent.