Forensic science is badly in need of reform. Here are some suggestions.
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008, at 12:43 PM
Forensic counsel for the indigent. In many jurisdictions, indigent defendants aren't given access to their own forensic experts. As a result, the only expert witnesses are often testifying for the prosecution—experts that come prepackaged with the inherent biases noted above. This undermines the whole adversarial basis of our criminal justice system. Indigent defendants should be given vouchers to hire their own experts, who can review the forensic analysis and conclusions of each prosecution expert.
Expert independence. Crime labs, DNA labs, and medical examiners shouldn't serve under the same bureaucracy as district attorneys and police agencies. If these experts must work for the government, they should report to an independent state agency, if not the courts themselves. There should be a wall of separation between analysis and interpretation. Thus, an independent medical examiner would, for instance, perform and videotape the actual procedure in an autopsy. The prosecution and defense would then each bring in their own experts to interpret the results in court. When the same expert performs both the analysis and interpretation, defense experts are often at a disadvantage, having to rely on the notes and photos of the same expert whose testimony they're disputing.
Rivalrous redudancy. Whether the state uses its own labs or contracts out to private labs, evidence should periodically and systematically be sent out to yet another competing lab for verification. The state's labs should be made aware that their work will occasionally be checked but not told when. In addition to helping discover errors that might otherwise go undetected, the introduction of competition to government labs would all but remove any subconscious incentive to appease police and prosecutors and would strengthen the incentive for a more objective analysis.
Statistical analysis. The results from forensic labs should be regularly analyzed for statistical anomalies. Labs producing unusually high match rates should throw up red flags for further examination. For example, in 2004 Houston medical examiner Patricia Moore was found to have diagnosed shaken-baby syndrome in infant autopsies at a rate several times higher than the national average. This led to an investigation—and the reopening of several convictions that had relied on Moore's testimony.
Mask the evidence. A 2006 U.K. study by researchers at the University of Southampton found that the error rate of fingerprint analysts doubled when they were first told the circumstances of the case they were working on. Crime lab technicians and medical examiners should never be permitted to consult with police or prosecutors before performing their analysis. A dramatic child murder case, for example, may induce a greater subconscious bias to find a match than a burglary case. To the extent that it's possible, evidence should be stripped of all context before being sent to the lab. Ideally, state or city officials might hire a neutral "evidence shepherd," whose job would be to deliver crime-scene evidence to the labs and oversee the process of periodically sending evidence to secondary labs for verification.
These proposed reforms would go a long way toward correcting the problems of bias and improper incentives in the forensics system. They're also relatively inexpensive—particularly when compared with the cost of a wrongful conviction. (In the Brooks and Brewer exonerations noted above, the state of Mississippi paid for both the prosecution and defense in two high-profile murder trials, three decades of unnecessary incarceration, several rounds of appeals, and will likely have to pay each man millions of dollars in compensation.)
The continuing stories of forensics error and wrongful convictions are troubling but not all that surprising. Our criminal justice system is centuries old. It just hasn't adapted well to the dramatic advances in science and technology over the past 30 years. But as forensic evidence becomes more and more important in securing convictions, the need for monitoring and oversight grows exponentially. Every other scientific field properly requires peer review, statistical analysis, and redundancy to ensure quality and accuracy. It's past time we applied the same quality-control measures to criminal forensics, particularly given the fundamental nature of what's at stake.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine.
Roger Koppl is director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Photograph of forensic scientist by Paul Gilham/Getty Images.