Junk Science and Lab Fraud
There are few things more compelling in a courtroom than scientific evidence that conclusively links a defendant to a crime. Put simply, when scientists testify, lawyers, judges, and juries listen. This firm belief in scientific evidence has grown in the past few years, with the advent of DNA testing and popular television shows like CSI contributing to the notion that forensic science is infallible. Unfortunately, studies of wrongful convictions have proven that in 30 percent of the initial DNA-based exonerations, the prosecution had used bad, tainted or false scientific evidence to win a conviction.
This problem of junk science can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Many convictions that occurred before the advent of DNA testing involved techniques – such as hair analysis, bite-mark analysis, or composite bullet-lead analysis – that were represented as solid science but were not grounded in the scientific method or properly validated. Jurors were persuaded that a defendant was a 100 percent match to a crime scene when making such a determination was simply not possible.
The advent of DNA testing, which is grounded in the scientific method, has begun to raise questions about the reliability of other scientific techniques. DNA has helped shed light on several high-profile cases involving unethical lab analysts who have testified about tests they never really conducted, falsified lab results, falsified their credentials, and misinterpreted test results. In other cases, the facilities in crime labs have been so woefully inadequate that scientists cannot do their jobs because they cannot properly preserve evidence and lack proper equipment. Even in DNA tests, this can lead to problems with contamination. Finally, a significant number of crime laboratories are affiliated with police departments and lack any mechanism for accreditation or independent oversight, which means that proper standards – even in DNA testing – often are lacking.
In February 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a groundbreaking report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, "outlining many of these problems and offering a wide array of solutions to the problem.
In light of what we have learned from DNA exonerations and what we learned from the NAS report, MAIP recommends the following practices and reforms:
Crime laboratories should be independent from police departments, with separate funding mechanisms and oversight.
States should create independent oversight boards to regulate the processes of crime labs.
Independent oversight boards and other appropriate bodies should create meaningful standards for accreditation that requirespot-checking, rigorous quality controls, and periodic inspection.
Defense lawyers and others involved in the criminal justice system should continue to examine and challenge the scientific basis for forensic testing.
Criminal defense lawyers should have access to full lab reports and data for forensic tests.
Criminal defense lawyers should have access to funds to hire independent experts to examine scientific data.
Defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges should receive training on the latest scientific techniques so they will be able to more readily spot problems when they do occur.
The federal government should create a National Institute of Forensic Science to oversee research, fund forensic science research, and establish standards for licensing and accreditation of analysts and laboratories.
For more information about junk science and crime laboratories, you can visit the following resources: