Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Forensic Evidence in Wrongful Conviction Cases: From Being a Right-Hand Man to Becoming a Snake in the Grass

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Forensic Evidence in Wrongful Conviction Cases: From Being a Right-Hand Man to Becoming a Snake in the Grass

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

This article examines the admissibility (1) and reliability (2) of forensic science in the courtroom. I will discuss false or misleading forensic evidence in wrongful conviction cases. In addition, I will examine when an "[e]xoneree's conviction was based at least in part on forensic information that was (1) caused by errors in forensic testing, (2) based on unreliable or unproven methods, (3) expressed with exaggerated and misleading confidence, [and/or (4) fraudulent." (3) It is known that during trials, the presence of forensic evidence that either supports or eliminates the defendant's part in a crime is a powerful factor. (4) Some scholars even consider forensic evidence to be the judge behind the scene, whose "real evidence" (5) is the final proof. (6) However, as forensic testimony has gained value, the presence of wrongful convictions has shaken its reputation--in particular, whether the forensic evidence should be relied upon as before. (7) Therefore, this article will discuss the shifting role of forensic science in the courtroom, particularly, when forensic science, the initial role of which was to help serve justice by being its right hand, can also cause miscarriages of justice and become a snake in the grass.

II. DEFINING THE PROBLEM

Forensic science is one of the types of hard sciences, used specifically to solve crimes. Since it affects an individual's future, and whether he or she will be found guilty or innocent, its reliability and admissibility can be detrimenta1. (8) However, it may be unclear which of those two aspects comes first and causes the other. In particular, "[a] method is unreliable if it does not produce consistent or accurate results.'... [A] process can be more reliable than it is valid - it can produce consistent results at a greater rate than it produces accurate results". (9) Such a definition implies that forensic science can definitely achieve consistent results more often than accurate results. However, the definition also hints at the fact that forensic experts may consider incorrect, but consistent, results as accurate. (10) Therefore, the confidence of forensic experts in their results--presented as expert testimony--sometimes leads to wrongful convictions. (11)

According to the Innocence Project, because forensic science is so blindly referenced and relied on in the courtroom, it "is the second most common contributing factor to wrongful convictions" in DNA cases. (12) In particular, it accounts for roughly forty-five percent of wrongful conviction cases. (13) This data is very troubling since it clearly points to the fact that even in the present day, considering all the innovative tools and technologies used in forensic labs, lab results can still be heavily flawed. In addition, considering this data, experts and researchers in the forensic and legal field believe that the role of forensic science in the courtroom as a right-hand man has shifted to being a snake in the grass.

Going forward in examining the aspects of errors in forensic evidence which caused wrongful conviction, the Innocence Project has identified three factors among them: (1) use of untested methods and techniques, (2) expert testimony which lacks empirical data, and (3) knowing presentation of fraudulent forensic results.

III. ERRORS CAUSED BY UNRELIABLE OR UNPROVEN METHODS AND TECHNIQUES

When it comes to the use of untested methods and techniques, forensic science analysts and experts are blamed for utilizing "disciplines or techniques that have not been tested to establish their validity and reliability." (14) A study conducted in 1978, examining the quality of work done in forensic science laboratories, found that among the mistakes committed when examining evidence was that labs utilized their own methods, whether they were proven to be accurate or not. (15) Such was the case with bite marks when forensic experts made assertions about the bite mark and its "owner'" even if at that time there was "no science of bite mark analysis. …

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