Faulty forensics: More law enforcement resisting science

—David A. Harris, University of Pittsburgh School of Law

[Note: This post originally appeared on the Failed Evidence blog. You can read the full article here.]

On July 10, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI will, at long last, review “thousands” of criminal cases in which they used discredited hair and fiber analysis to “match” defendants to crimes.  The move comes months after the Post published an article exposing the wrongful convictions of two men based on widely-used forensic testing of hair.  According to the newspaper:

Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.

(Since the article’s publication, the conviction of one of the men, Santae Tribble, has been vacated, and prosecutors have moved to have the other man, Kirk Odom, declared innocent of the crime.)

DNA evidence has now been in wide use in criminal cases for more than twenty years, and many of the nearly 300 convictions reversed in those years have come in cases in which bogus hair and fiber evidence, or other kinds of faulty forensics, convicted the defendants.  The weakness of this type of evidence was one of the central points of the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States.” Nevertheless, the reaction of law enforcement in D.C. was not to adopt better procedures. According to National Public Radio, even though some law enforcement agencies around the country have made changes for the better based on science, “legislation in the City Council to reform those practices has been opposed by prosecutors and police.”

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern: science and experience show that evidence and methods we have used is not science at all, and that glaring weaknesses must be fixed.  Instead of taking action to improve what it does, law enforcement resists what science can tell us about how to improve, often at a low cost.  As a result, innocent people suffer needless injustice, and victims do not get the justice they deserve.

David A. Harris is author of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, forthcoming from NYU Press in September.

»» Further reading: Check out the author’s blog (http://failedevidence.wordpress.com/) and Washington Post‘s interactive feature on the reliability of forensic analysis methods (including DNA, hair samples, fingerprints, polygraphs, and more).

Website | + posts