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When Forensic Science Is on Shaky Ground

By Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney on May 20, 2019

Forensic science used to solve crimes is all the rage in television shows, books, and movies. In real life, however, the science behind forensics may not be as dependable as we have been led to believe. DNA evidence is currently exonerating people who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated based on faulty evidence.

Is Forensic Science Reliable?

According to an article published by UCLA, a report issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) states that certain forensic evidence has not been scientifically validated. This report was written by eminent scientists, who assessed forensic methods by scientific standards and found that some are not adequate for use as evidence in a courtroom.

The authors of the report offer a workable test for forensic validity: empirical studies designed to test accuracy and error rates, conducted in conditions similar to the real world. This is a reasonable standard that any valid forensic technique should be able to meet. Conversely, any forensic technique that fails to be meet this standard should not be allowed as evidence in court.

Techniques that were found to be unreliable include:

  • Firearms identification
  • Bite mark analysis
  • Microscopic hair comparisons
  • Footwear analysis

What Makes Forensic Science Unreliable?

Unlike DNA testing, most fields of forensics did not arise in the scientific community and are not as accurate as their practitioners claim. As reported in a Washington Post article, studies from both PCAST and the National Academy of Sciences have concluded that there is insufficient research to support the claims made by practitioners of pattern-matching forensics. This is broad forensic field that includes analysis of hair fibers, bite marks, tire treads, and tool marks.

A recent joint study conducted by the FBI and the Innocence Project covered decades of hair examiner testimony in criminal cases. Researchers found flaws in 95% of the cases. Additionally, DNA testing has revealed that bite-mark evidence leading to a number of serious felony convictions was faulty. Faulty forensics have been found in approximately half of the cases in which DNA testing exonerated a person who was convicted and incarcerated.

Why Not Use DNA Testing Instead of Forensics?

DNA is not always available in criminal prosecutions. Courts frequently rely on long-standing forensic techniques because it’s what they’ve done before. Judges continue to allow forensic science as evidence because other judges have done so in the past. However, some courts have placed restrictions on the wording forensic experts can use when testifying as to a match between a particular person and a piece of forensic evidence.

Is the FBI’s Photo Analysis Valid Scientific Evidence?

In an FBI laboratory in Quantico, a unit specializing in facial identification and visual evidence aids investigations by making images sharper and clearer, revealing key details in a crime. This technique may be useful to law enforcement, but it has never had a strong scientific foundation. Nevertheless, the FBI has endorsed its photo analysis findings as trial evidence. The agency’s examiners have tied defendants to crime pictures using unproven techniques in thousands of cases over the past 50 years.

For some time, FBI examiners have testified in court that they could identify, to the exclusion of all others, which person left a fingerprint, what gun fired a bullet, and whose head a hair came from. DNA analysis and other research have repeatedly disproved these claims. In fact, pursuant to new testimony guidelines, the U.S. Department of Justice will no longer allow technicians and scientists from the FBI and other agencies to make such claims.

Our Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help

As stated by the Innocence Project, false or misleading forensic evidence contributed to 24% of all wrongful convictions in the U.S. as proven by DNA exoneration. Fortunately, California is one of five states that have enacted laws to allow wrongfully convicted people back into court.

It can be extremely challenging for people who were wrongfully convicted to prove their innocence. If shaky forensic science has been a factor in your case, it is in your best interest to speak with an experienced lawyer at once. Contact Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP as soon as possible at (213) 688-0460. Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers have decades of experience and a history of success in achieving a positive outcome in difficult cases.

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Posted in: Criminal Defense