Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Realizing Reliability in Forensic Science from the Ground Up

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Realizing Reliability in Forensic Science from the Ground Up

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION  I. FORENSICS: FAR FROM SCIENTIFIC CERTAINTY      A. "Science" Short of the Nth Degree     B. Splitting Hairs: Anatomy of a Cheap Fix     C. Reading the Fine Print     D. Crime Lab Contagion: A Culture of Cutting Comers  II. GROUNDHOG DAY: ATTEMPTS AT REFORMING FORENSIC SCIENCE    IN THE UNITED STATES      A. Treating Symptoms Instead of the Cause: The Early Years of         Forensic Reform     B. The Cash Cow: Funding Linked to DNA Testing     C. Forensic Reform 3.0: A Graveyard of Good Ideas  III. TOO BIG TO FAIL: OBSTACLES TO FEDERAL FORENSIC OVERSIGHT     A. Federal Power to Mandate Standards.     B. Federal Enforcement Creates National Standards     C. Tie Federal Funds to Adoption of Regulations     D. The Buy-In: Resistance to Reform  IV. ORGANIC CHEMISTRY: REFORMING FORENSIC SCIENCE FROM     ITS BASE      A. Appreciating the Big Picture: Nonnegotiables     B. Drilling Down on the Details: Longer-Term Goals  V. BUILDING ON EXISTING MODELS AND FRAMEWORKS TO IMPROVE    QUALITY AND COST     A. Incubating Forensic Science Reform: Ideas at Home and    Abroad    B. Acknowledging that Probably Nothing is Perfect    C. Setting a Stage for Reform  CONCLUSION 


Forensic science is a fractured and burdened discipline. Five years ago, in 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a revealing report announcing that forensic science is broken. (1) Depending on the audience, reactions to the NAS Report ran the gamut, from calling it predictable to groundbreaking to misleading. (2) In many respects, although it could hardly be characterized as new information, the NAS Report laid forensic science's shortcomings to bare and brought to the surface the weaknesses that have plagued forensic science for decades. (3) Moreover, the NAS Report underscored a harsh truth: faulty forensic science has contributed to convicting innocent people--and will continue to do so if the status quo persists. (4)

American courts have improperly legitimized various forensic disciplines without subjecting them to the kind of scrutiny that would be required of novel scientific or technical evidence today. Courts accept the untested view that "science," such as fingerprinting and hair analysis, is (1) generally accepted, (2) science, and (3) reliable. Such unsupported conclusions have lacked adequate scrutiny, whether from a scientific or a legal perspective. Take forensic fingerprint analysis. The common--yet unrealistically romantic--starting point is that there are no two fingerprints exactly alike in the world. That assumption produces the further assumption that fingerprint analysis must be correspondingly reliable. This logic is erroneous.

For example, forensic science and its resulting expert testimony sealed the fate of Bennie Starks during his trial for a brutal rape in 1986. (5) At trial, the State's forensic serologist testified that, based on her analysis of a semen sample taken from the victim's underpants and a sample obtained from Starks, she could not exclude Starks as the source. (6) The prosecution also hired dentists Dr. Carl Hagstrom and Dr. Russell Schneider (who self-identified as experts in forensic odontology) to testify that bite marks on the victim's shoulder had been made by Starks. (7) The dentists testified that after comparing the evidence, photos, X-rays, and a model of Starks's teeth, the bite marks shared sixty-two similar characteristics with Starks's teeth. (8) After hearing these forensic "experts" testify that scientific evidence tied the defendant to the crime, the jury convicted Starks of two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, and aggravated battery. (9) Starks was sentenced to sixty years in prison. (10)

In 2006, after spending nearly twenty years behind bars, a DNA test categorically excluded Starks as the source of the semen. (11) Additionally, two other odontologists' independent examinations of the bite mark evidence completely discredited the conclusions and testimonies presented at trial. …

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