Justice Experts Put Science on Trial

Article excerpt

The worlds of science and justice mesh almost seamlessly on popular TV shows such as "CSI," but that coexistence is less perfect in reality, a panel of forensic and legal professionals agreed during a discussion Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh.

Much like DNA testing, changes in other aspects of criminal investigation -- including eyewitness identifications, interrogation methods and traditional forensics, such as fingerprints -- could yield better justice and reduce wrongful convictions, said Pitt law professor David Harris in discussing his book, "Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science," published this year.

"There's a lot of resistance to changing our traditional police practices to come to where we should be in embracing science," Harris said. "I am not looking for perfection. But I continue to believe that we as Americans owe it to ourselves to do the best we can ... in order to get to justice most of the time, if not all of the time."

Since DNA evidence was introduced in 1989, nearly 300 convictions have been overturned nationwide, including 11 in Pennsylvania, according to the Innocence Institute. Such evidence exonerated three men convicted in Allegheny County: Bruce Nelson (1991), Thomas Doswell (2005) and Drew Whitley (2006).

Top reasons for reversed convictions because of DNA evidence are wrong witness identifications, bad forensics and false confessions, Harris said.

Many of those mistakes could be eliminated, he said, by changing the way police conduct lineups, limiting the amount of time a person can be interrogated and barring "junk science," such as bite-mark evidence from trials. …