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Questions About Forensic Evidence

Crime labs are big on television — think “CSI.” In the real world, big questions are being raised about forensic evidence. We’ll investigate.

A forensic investigator from the West Midlands Police (Flickr/ West Midlands Police)

A forensic investigator from the West Midlands Police. (West Midlands Police/Flickr)

On the TV crime lab shows — like “NCIS” and “CSI” — the wizards of forensic investigation can nail a case like nobody’s business. Give them a hair or a bite mark or a burn pattern or a bullet, and they’ve got the case solved. A lot of Americans have bought that. A lot of law enforcement has used that.

But for years, people in the know have said, “Wait a minute, it’s not that simple.”

Now the FBI itself has hit the pause button. It is reviewing thousands of cases where forensic evidence looks shaky and reviewing the effectiveness of a lot of classic forensic evidence itself.

This hour, On Point: Forensic evidence on trial.

–Tom Ashbrook


Jack Nicas, national news reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Barry Logan, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences who was appointed the Director of the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau for the Washington State Patrol in 1999. National Director of NMS Labs, an independent forensic laboratory in Philadelphia.

Peter J. Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project and former public defender with the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx. He taught Trial Advocacy at Fordham University Law School and in 1995 and 2000, he was appointed to serve on the New York State Commission on Forensic Science by then-Governor George Pataki.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Washington Post: How Accurate Is Forensic Analysis? – “Many forensic techniques developed in crime labs to aid investigators, and research into their limits or scientific validity was never a priority. Except for DNA, no method has been shown to be able to consistently and accurately link a piece of evidence to an individual or single source.”

The Atlantic Wire: Justice Will Review Two Dozen Capital Cases Due To Flawed FBI Testimony – “An expert witness testifies at a trial to provide evidence in his or her field. Over the course of several decades beginning in the late 1970s, witnesses with the FBI went further, suggesting that particular evidence—hair-match analysis—was a stronger indicator of guilt than the science supports. They tried, in other words, to help prosecute the case.  Now, in an apparently unprecedented move, the Department of Justice has agreed to review 120 convictions that may have been influenced by the agents’ exaggerated testimony. In 27 of those cases, the convicted individuals were sentenced to death.”

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  • brettearle

    Forensic testimony should be allowed via an impartial court tribunal–and not at the behest of the Defense or the Prosecution.

    How many times have we seen or heard about specialists and experts–who testify for the prosecution or testify for the defense–and come up with glaring differences and contrasting interpretations?

    How can Juries sometimes arrive at competent conclusions, as the result?

    More Objectivity is needed–if that’s possible.

    How many different ways can you parse Empirical evidence–whether it’s a head injury evaluated by a medical examiner or blood splatter by a forensic specialist?

    The answer may, too often, be equivocal. 

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      There is no such thing as unbiased science when humans are involved.
      Impartial court tribunal ? ? Every human has some prejudice, conscious or unconscious. Of course it can work to the advantage of “truth”, also. I am thinking back to a physics class I took many years ago. There were three of us in the lab. Our experiment was to measure the wavelength of a given color light, yellow, as I remember, (vaguely) the experiment. When we were finished with the experiment, we gave the professor our answer, it was PERFECT. He said, “ that’s impossible” . He thought we somehow rigged the experiment. Wrong ! Somehow, all of our independent errors had canceled out, giving us the correct answer !
      The three stooges became three kings that day. Go figure !

      • brettearle

        Impartial Tribunal means a greater chance of ascertaining the Forensic Truth.

        No one thinks the word Impartial is meant to be taken Literally–unless they believe in the, Tooth Fairy.

    • TyroneJ

      An “impartial court tribunal” is exactly what should NOT happen. Even “bullet proof” forensic tests such as DNA are subject to issues of flawed collection whereby the crime technicians accidentally cross contaminate samples in the field or in the lab. The only chance of such issues being detected so the results can be questioned is for independent examination of all steps in the process & the facilities.

      • brettearle

        Independent Examination, by the very nature of `Impartial’ would be conducted, via cross checking and do-overs by other specialists.

        And the Tax Payers would need to support the costs–in order to increase the chances, as much as possible, for Innocent people to stay out of jail and for Guilty individuals go to jail.

        That would be allocations well spent. 

        Are you suggesting that specialists from Prosecution or Specialists from Defense are not picked, according to results that favor that side of the case?

        If an Impartial Tribunal is chosen, there doesn’t have to be simply 1 team chosen.

        There can be more than 1 team of forensic specialists chosen–in order to cross check each others’ work.

        Any margins for error can possibly be narrowed if tests are done again by yet another team.

  • Ed75

    It makes one wonder why we have murder mysteries on several channels hour after hour. It makes one wonder if there is something we feel guilty about, or are trying to deal with in terms of surrogates.

    • J__o__h__n

      People like crime, murder and violence and the murder mystery format almost always results in the criminal being punished which lets the viewer indulge in watching something exciting with societal order restored at the end of the hour. 

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

        The murder mystery format also lends itself to suspense, as you can’t ask the victim what happened. That’s why it’s called a police procedural (h/t E Poe, F Lang and others).

        I sorta prefer the “detective’s eye view” in which the viewer (or reader) doesn’t get to find out things in advance of Our Intrepid Hero(es).

    • jefe68

      You should read more Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett. Particularly Serenade by James M. Cain.

      My favorite is Prime Suspect. Also Inspector Morse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    its too bad they did not empower the magistrates to let the people out who are improperly  imprisoned due to the state drug lab scandal. every day they are in prison is a disgrace

  • PeterBoyle

    Between incompetent Crime Labs and prosecutors cheating so they can win and get re-elected the average American can get little justice in America today.  If you are poor you can forget almost any access to our Court system, and no justice if you do manage to get a hearing.  With Mandatory Sentencing the Prosecutors have a lock on getting a guilty plea by pointing out that the penalty will be 3 time longer if the case goes to court.  The collusion between Prosecutors, Crime Labs, Expert testimony and poverty have filled the jails with victims of the system and allowed the truly guilty to go free.  Behind the blindfold Lady Justice is crying.

  • J__o__h__n

    I’m alarmed by the police stalking the nephew of the Boston Strangler to obtain his DNA.  Innocent people should be free from the police following them and taking their DNA.  They should have gotten a court order to exhume the body to obtain the DNA. 

  • homebuilding

    Thank God for the Innocence Project !

    In a famous case recently, there was a supposed expert on human decomposition ODOR.  

    I’m old enough to have seen quite a number of animals in various states of decomposition.  

    I absolutely cannot imagine that any expert could smell an automobile trunk mat and confirm that the odor was that of a dead human, as opposed to the exclusion of a dead cat or the wet landscaping manure that remained on some old boots. 

    Maybe, it’s a bit like standing, blindfolded, by a road, identifying make and model of the passing vehicle by odor–right, I’ll be able to segregate the diesels, too.

    Plainly, if you want to believe in witchcraft, you certainly can.  But it’s put a world record number of people in prison.

  • brian copeland

    This is great news for all of those unemployed lawyers said to be coming out school. As if we needed more…

  • Wahoo_wa

    “It hasn’t been scientifically tested but it has been proved unreliable.”  Did anyone else hear that?  That makes no sense.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      I didn’t hear it. (I’ll go back for the podcast.)

      Is it a sciency-contextual thing, wherein something is assumed unreliable until proved otherwise?

      • Wahoo_wa

        It was at the beginning of the program.  I wish the statement was along the lines of “unreliable until proved otherwise” but it was a definitive statement meant to discredit.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

          Thanx. My computer has glitched some audio lately.

      • homebuilding

        No, an increasing number of people, including eff bee eye types, now realize that CSI assumptions, alone, without a scientific background, shouldn’t be used to send anyone to jail

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    I know the stakes are lesser and different, but this does remind me of Ryan Braun’s situation in reverse.

    He tested positive for PEDs, yet avoided suspension last year when it was revealed that that urine sample was mishandled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.anamasi Lisa Anamasi

    I wonder what this will mean for our local university’s well-regarded forensic science program.  I would love to hear about how Dr. Henry C. Lee’s ties with television may have popularized these ideas.   

  • lawyermomma

    No forensic lab should be part of any law enforcement department. They should be free standing independent agencies whose only mission is the facts. They should have to testify at a trial. There should be Daubert hearings on the state of the science. No science, no facts, no evidence.

    • Bill O’Brien

      That’s right. And this would be especially helpful in eyewitness IDs. It has been clearly established by experimental social science that if the person conducting the phot lineup (usu. a cop) knows which one is the suspect, the reliability will be lower. That should be relatively easy to fix. 

  • truegangsteroflove

    I would like to see a study of the correlation between zealous prosecution and zeal for higher office. I suspect that the incidence of wrongful prosecution resulting in candidacy for governor, judge, senator and other higher offices is very high.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      yup. being a prosecutor is a lousy low paying job for a lawyer. they must either be incompetent or have other ambitions

  • baseball9

    The show seems to imply that individuals were convicted based only on one piece of evidence. Every case is different and numerous types of evidence come on to play in every case. The same individuals on the show today lambasting forensic evidence will tomorrow (or yesterday) be questioning the efficacy of eyewitness testimony, followed closely by whether we the public can actually believe confessions given in criminal cases. Gee, note a pattern here?  (This was written a t 11:35, at 11:44 Am, your expert just threw into question confessions and eyewitness testimony)There is a book of “expert” witnesses available to any attorney who will testify for or against any proposition or piece of evidence (colloquilly referred to as the Hire a Liar book)Finally, it is the media and television that has created the CSI effect, not prosecutors.

    • lawyermomma

      You do realize that eyewitness testimony has been shown to be the least reliable evidence presented. That’s been known for a while. And there have been many cases of false confession, leading to convictions that were later overturned.

      Remember that for every bad conviction someone guilty is walking free. Convicting the innocent shouldn’t be goal.

  • kvandermolen

    What agency has to decide to look at old convictions in light of new realities such as the faulty arson evaluations based on the arson investigators’ “feelings” or experience, but not science?

  • gemli

    Adding the word “science” to something does not make it a science (think Social Science).  CSI-type evidence may be based on technical analyses, but science involves double-blind experimental studies, peer review and validation of results beyond a given percentage of error.  Mere correlation between patterns of striations on bullet fragments or the physical appearance of a strand of hair is not adequate justification for convicting anyone.

  • Janell Simpson

    Can someone offer a senior high school level question that a student could investigate during an internship at our local crime lab? So far, I have suggested a comparison of the reliability of different types of forensic analysis, assuming that sort of data will be available at the local lab. 

  • kenrubenstein

    If this happened, what else has happened. This further undermines trust in our government institutions. Are we no better than Russia or India or Pakistan in terms of corruption and reliability? I don’t know.

  • Rick Evans

     Frontline did an investigative report with Pro-Publica where it was suggested the largest accreditation organization of forensic investigators American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI) is little more than a diploma mill.


    • brettearle

      Saw it, a couple of days ago.


      Can’t believe there was no oversight.

  • Jacob Arnon

    I enjoyed listening to the show but thought that Tom Ashbrook got it wrong.

    The reason people in t US love criminal forensic shows is that most of us were,brought up on a belief in the infallabilty of science.

    A healthy dose of non cynical skepticism is in order.

    Amazing that Tom is here upset with the consequences of accepting science as pure truth while a few days later he buys the absurd theory that we are just walking talking chemicals.

    C’est drole.

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