According to the Innocence Project, the misapplication of forensic science is a contributing factor in 45 percent of wrongful convictions that were resolved through DNA exonerations. The problem, which the Innocence Project defines as unreliable or invalid forensic discipline, insufficient validation of a method, misleading testimony, mistakes or misconduct, is the second most common contributing factor to wrongful convictions.
The Innocence Project isn’t the only group critical of the forensic science used in our criminal justice system. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences reported that some common forensic techniques were not backed up by sufficient science. These included comparisons of bite marks, fiber, hair and tire tread impressions and others.
In 2015, the Washington Post called out the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, finding that, since at least 1972, 26 out of 28 examiners from the unit “overstated forensic matches in a way that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent” of cases.
These issues were front and center at the International Association for Identification’s annual International Educational Conference recently. Some 1,400 crime scene investigators from around the country met to discuss how best to address the problem.
“There’s a danger that if we aren’t successful, there will be more reports of falsely convicted individuals and guilty perpetrators are allowed to go free because the quality of the forensic science was not convincing to a judge or jury,” said one 40-year forensic science veteran.
That 40-year veteran now works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which started working on the problem in 2014. It set up the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science to begin setting scientific standards for forensic science techniques. Some 550 practitioners representing three-quarters of the nation’s crime labs are creating the evidence-based standards.
In four years’ time, however, they have only developed 11 standards. 200 more are in development.
The Department of Defense’s Defense Forensic Science Center is also contributing. Its chief of latent prints noticed that nothing had really changed in 30 years and vowed to create a science-based tool to improve the state of the science. The result was a software tool that provides a statistical analysis of a probable match.
“There is a shock value of ‘I thought my evidence was stronger than the result I’m getting,'” said a DOD spokesperson, while noting that the ultimate result is better fingerprint analysis.
It may come as a surprise that many of the techniques we’re all familiar with from crime dramas have little basis in scientific reality. While it’s good that forensic scientists are working on the problem, in the meantime citizens and juries should be much more skeptical of forensic analysis.