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.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Oct 8, 2015
In this Aug. 2, 2012 file photo, local newspapers show stories about the controversial strategy to bail the government out of a financial hole, at a restaurant along Seven Mile Beach on the outskirts of George Town on the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands have lost some of their allure by abruptly proposing what amounts to an income tax on expatriate workers who have helped build the territory into one of the most famous or, for some people, notorious offshore banking centers that have tax advantages for foreign investment operations. (AP)

Trillions of dollars are now stashed in protected tax havens around the world, leaving societies’ bills to those at home. We’ll dig in.

Oct 8, 2015
US singer Patti Smith performs during the Way Out West music festival in Gothenburg, Sweden, Saturday, Aug.15, 2015.  (AP)

Iconic rocker, poet of punk, and National Book Award-winning author Patti Smith joins us to talk about her new memoir, “M Train”.

Oct 7, 2015
Students in the new documentary film "Beyond Measure" take part in a project-based learning activity with their peers. (Courtesy the Filmmakers)

Arne Duncan’s headed out as U.S. Education Secretary. What’s next for America’s school kids?

Oct 7, 2015
The Doctors Without Borders trauma center is seen in flames, after explosions near their hospital in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders announced that the death toll from the bombing of the group's Kunduz hospital compound has risen to at least 16, including 3 children and that tens are missing after the explosions that may have been caused by a U.S. airstrike.  (AP)

The U.S. airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan faces tough questions from Congress. We’re looking for what really happened.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Rep. Daniel Webster: ‘I’m Gonna Sell This Message’
Tuesday, Oct 6, 2015

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his retirement and resignation from his position last month, it surprised both his Party and the Washington political establishment.

More »
Our Week In The Web: October 2, 2015
Friday, Oct 2, 2015

We say hello again to our email address (since so many of you did this week) and goodbye to the Log Lady.

More »
Interview With Sen. Bernie Sanders: ‘Count Me As A Radical’
Thursday, Oct 1, 2015

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is making waves in the 2016 Presidential race, and he joined us today from the US Capitol to explain how his campaign message is connecting with voters around the country.

More »