Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Scandal of Forensic "Evidence" Goes On

The Washington Post reports:
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison. . . .

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, commended the FBI and department for the collaboration but said, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
That this crap was admitted to American courtrooms as "science" disgusts me. And the FBI crime lab had the reputation of being the nation's most rigorous; Connor Friedersdorf has a round-up of some of the recent scandals in state-run labs, including:
In St. Paul, Minnesota, an independent review of the crime lab found "major errors in almost every area of the lab's work, including the fingerprint and crime scene evidence processing that has continued after the lab's drug testing was stopped in July. The failures include sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures ... Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a 'technical reference' in at least one drug case ... The lab lacked any clean area designated for the review and collection of DNA evidence. The lab stored crime-scene photos on a computer that anyone could access without a password.
In North Carolina, "agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period. Three of those cases resulted in execution. There was widespread lying, corruption, and pressure from prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials on crime lab analysts to produce results that would help secure convictions. And the pressure worked."
I don't know why anyone would single out the citing of Wikipedia as a problem; given what we know about crime labs, it is probably much more reliable than anything else the lab technicians rely on.

Radical reform is needed to solve this problem on both the institutional and technical sides. The basic institutional problem is that crime labs usually work for prosecutors, and prosecutors can and do pressure them to help get convictions, rather than find the truth. The labs must be made independent. The technical problem is that the labs are never subjected to double-blind testing; until they are, we have no way of knowing what their accuracy rate really is. Attempts at reform usually focus on "better training" of technicians and more rigorous procedures, but those are bunk. As the Post notes, when state and local labs want experts to train their people they look to the FBI, so the people whose work for the FBI is now being thrown out en masse have in the past trained more than 500 techs at other labs.

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