Necessary Challenges to Forensic Evidence

By: Gerri L. Elder

On “Law and Order” and “CSI,” the forensic evidence is never wrong. However, these are fictional television shows and research indicates that forensic evidence is often flawed.

For instance, DNA is the final word on identification – right?

A 2007 University of California study found that the results of DNA tests are often ambiguous and results can be interpreted in different ways.

Shockingly enough, according to the study, DNA analysis is subjective process.

How about fingerprints?

They are always a definitive means of identification – right?

Wrong again, says the study.

The research has shown that there is a 2 percent incidence of false positives on fingerprint identification.

These false positives have the potential to result in thousands of wrongful criminal convictions each year.

Science Should Not Be Biased

DNA, fingerprints, ballistics, bloodstain patterns, tire print analysis and other forensic evidence often carry a lot of weight in criminal trials, despite the flaws that are often present.

Most jurors are inclined to have faith in the findings of forensic experts, without realizing the simple facts that these experts work for the prosecution team and often make subjective judgments on evidence.

In simple terms, these forensic experts often make the evidence fit the crime.

For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that people who are accused of crimes not only have access to lawyers, but independent forensic experts as well.

However, while criminal defendants are constitutionally guaranteed representation by a lawyer, criminal defense rights do not extend to forensic experts.

Fair Forensic Examinations

The Courant recently reported on a Mississippi murder case in which the judge recognized that the forensic evidence should be more thoroughly examined.

The defendant in the case has been accused of murdering a Jackson State University student last November.

Judge Swan Yerger has set aside several thousand dollars of county funds so that the defense can hire a forensic expert to examine the evidence before the trial in September.

A Look at Botched Forensics

We have all heard about the extreme accuracy of DNA evidence. While this technology is only several decades old, there have been rapid advancements and it is now considered the end-all be-all of forensic evidence.

What we do not usually hear about is that the DNA samples that are examined frequently consist of DNA of both the criminals and their victims.

When the DNA is mixed, scientists must rely on a suspect’s “clean” DNA sample to untangle the results of the testing.

So in these types of cases, what actually happens is that the suspect’s DNA is picked out of a hopelessly scrambled bunch of DNA. Given that this is the standard procedure, it’s easy to see how biased “mistakes” can happen.

There is honestly no telling exactly how many people have served time in prison, are still in prison or sitting on death row due to botched or biased DNA results. The fact that it happens is amplified by cases in which the truth is finally discovered.

Josiah Sutton is one of those cases. He spent more than four years in a Houston jail after he was convicted of rape at the age of 16. His conviction was based largely on the results of a DNA test that was later discredited.

Evidence mishandling and errors in analysis were found 10 percent of the time in areas involving fibers, paints, glass, and body fluid mixtures, according to a comprehensive study of crime lab proficiency published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1995. A more recent study of this kind has not been published.

Forensic Evidence Changes Necessary

If forensic evidence is to be relied on in criminal courts, the analysis of samples must be unbiased and accurate. This is one of the reasons behind Yerger’s decision to enable independent evaluation of the evidence.

Usually in criminal cases, the police, prosecutors and forensic crime specialists all work together to ensure convictions. If the crime lab can’t back up the prosecution, it hurts the case. There is pressure for everyone to be on the same page when pushing for a criminal conviction.

Independent forensic labs would serve to break up this clique and ensure more valid and unbiased forensic results. Then, and only then, there would be a chance of justice and fairness for all in the criminal justice system.