How Reliable are Forensic and Ballistic Evidence?

Forensic and ballistic evidence have been key to criminal convictions — and police drama — for the past few decades. But a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) could change the way these types of evidence play out in court.

At heart of the issue is that the scientific methods used to link bullets to guns and identify fingerprints, hair follicles and bite marks are far from perfect, and can seldom prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Aside from DNA evidence, no forensic evidence should be viewed as cut-and-dry.

For example, matching bullets to shells is far from an exact science, as many of the identifying marks used are too common for a one-to-one relationship. Yet ballistic evidence is often presented as such.

Since the report was issued in February, at least one criminal defense attorney has used it to refute hair and fiber as evidence, according to

The lawyer of Darryl Littlejohn, a Manhattan bouncer charged in the murder of a college student, cited the evidence, saying, “This report shows that many forensic techniques, which are relied on in courtrooms everyday, lack scientific support.”

While most courts are still not ruling out forensic and ballistic evidence (even the judge in the Littlejohn case ultimately ruled in favor of the evidence), this development could increase the burden of proof for prosecuting attorneys, as criminal defense attorney Brian Zubel of Holly, Mich., points out.

“For a generation, firearms examiners have been going into court and claiming to be able to make fingerprint-style identifications between bullets and guns,” Zubel said. “The problem with that is: The science does not support that.”

This is not the first time that the validity of ballistics has been called into question, and it likely won’t be the last.

In the 2008 case U.S. v. Glynn, New York Federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff allowed ballistic evidence, but with an important caveat: “Ballistics opinions may be stated in terms of ‘more likely than not,’ but nothing more,” he ruled.

So what does this mean for forensic and ballistic experts? Perhaps little for now, but a galvanizing defense attorney could use this as an opportunity to appeal, and the issue could be send to the high courts for a final decision.

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