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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mystery/Detective Buffs: the Low State of Forensics

Whether you're a mystery/detective reader or writer, or interested in the criminal justice system, you may be interested in this. Popular Mechanics has a series of articles that generally decry the low state of forensics. In the first general article on the state of forensics ("CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics"), they give anecdotes about convicted persons who were cleared much later using DNA-matching techniques. In one case, a fireman who reported finding a murder victim later committed suicide when the case was reopened for DNA analysis. This fireman was a suspect that the Sheriff's Department had suppressed from official evidence. The wrongly accused man had been convicted on the basis of odontology and the matching of bite marks.

The problem is, forensics methods were developed over time by law enforcement people rather than scientists and were not given scientific scrutiny:

...Congress commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to examine the state of forensics in U.S. law enforcement. The result was a blistering report that came out this February, noting “serious deficiencies” in the nation’s forensic science system and advocating extensive reforms. It specifically noted that apart from DNA, there is not a single forensic discipline that has been proven “with a high degree of certainty” to be able to match a piece of evidence to a suspect.

In one study in the U.K., experienced finger print analysts were given samples from actual past criminal cases and were given the task of validating the original results. They weren't told that the cases were their own past cases. The results of the reexaminations were often inconsistent with the original results. (Data was also taken on whether knowledge of the result of the first examination affected the results of the second examination.)

In four related articles, Popular Mechanics takes aim at four pillars of criminal prosecution and police work: finger prints, ballistics, trace evidence, and biological evidence.

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