Hundreds of people have been convicted in whole or in part on forensic science that has come under fire during the past decade, reported The Associated Press.
Some of that science — analysis of bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification, burn patterns in arson investigations, footwear patterns and tire treads — was once considered sound, but is now being denounced by some lawyers and scientists who say it has not been studied enough to prove its reliability and in some cases has led to wrongful convictions.
Even so, judges nationwide continue to admit such evidence regularly.
“Courts — unlike scientists — rely too heavily on precedent and not enough on the progress of science,” said Christopher Fabricant, director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project. “At some point, we have to acknowledge that precedent has to be overruled by scientific reality.”
Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say prosecutors and judges are slow to acknowledge that some forensic science methods are flawed because they are the very tools that have for decades helped win convictions. And such evidence can be persuasive for jurors, many of whom who have seen it used dramatically on “Law & Order” and “CSI.”
Rulings in the past year show judges are reluctant to rule against long-accepted evidence even when serious questions have been raised about its reliability:
— A judge in Pennsylvania ruled prosecutors can call an expert to testify about bite marks found on a murder victim’s body, despite 29 wrongful arrests and convictions nationwide attributed to unreliable bite mark evidence since 2000.
— A Connecticut judge allowed prosecutors to present evidence that a footprint was made by a specific shoe belonging to a man accused of murder, despite a 2016 finding by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that such associations are “unsupported by any meaningful evidence or estimates of their accuracy.”
— In Chicago, a federal judge rejected a request to exclude testimony of government experts to describe firearm and tool-mark comparisons they performed on bullets collected at crime scenes in the trial of Hobos gang members. The judge reasoned that defense lawyers were free to cross-examine the government’s experts.
Two reports by scientific boards have sharply criticized the use of such forensic evidence, and universities that teach it are moving away from visual analysis — essentially, eyeballing it — and toward more precise biometric tools.
But some defense lawyers fear any progress on strengthening forensic science may be lost under President Donald Trump.
a serious problem.”
The National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California Irvine has documented more than 2,000 exonerations since 1989. Nearly one-fourth list “false or misleading forensic evidence” as a contributing factor.
And a report last fall from the President’s Council criticized several “feature-comparison” methods, which attempt to determine whether a sample from a crime scene is associated with a sample from a suspect by comparing patterns. The council said those methods — including analysis of shoeprints, tire tracks, latent fingerprints, firearms and spent ammunition — need more study to determine their reliability and error rates.
When the reliability of forensic evidence is challenged through DNA testing or other new evidence, it often results in the granting of a new trial, even if there is other strong evidence against a
Science, an independent panel of scientists, researchers, judges and attorneys that had been studying how to improve the reliability of forensic practices.
Some forensic methods have been questioned by defense lawyers for years, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit consisting of some of the nation’s most distinguished researchers, released a report that found that with the exception of DNA, many methods had not been tested enough to be considered valid.
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