Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

The Crime Lab in the Age of the Genetic Panopticon

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

The Crime Lab in the Age of the Genetic Panopticon

Article excerpt


INSIDE THE CELL: THE DARK SIDE OF FORENSIC DNA. By Erin E. Murphy. New York: Nation Books. 2015. Pp. xii, 312. $27.99.

COPS IN LAB COATS: CURBING WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS THROUGH INDEPENDENT FORENSIC LABORATORIES. By Sandra Guerra Thompson. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press. 2015. Pp. xvii, 236. $37.


"Scientific evidence really nails this man to the wall," the Harris County, Texas prosecutor told the jurors in closing statements.1 In February 1987, two men abducted and raped a fourteen-year-old girl in Houston, Texas (Thompson, p. 3). The victim initially identified two brothers and a man named Isidro Yanez, but after several suggestive lineup procedures were used, she instead identified George Rodriguez (Thompson, pp. 5-7). At trial, George Rodriguez claimed he was innocent and that he had been working a factory the day of the crime. The prosecutor emphasized, however, that the blood type of swabs taken from the victim showed that Rodriguez did commit the crime, that a hair from the crime scene matched him, and that the person the defense sought to inculpate, Yanez, "beyond a doubt . . . could not have committed the offense."2 Rodriguez was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to sixty years in prison (Thompson, p. 14).

But seventeen years later, the same hair was tested again, this time using DNA analysis instead of visual matching (Thompson, p. 17). The technology had changed, but so had the Houston police crime laboratory, which was in the midst of a crisis that would ultimately lead to the entire crime lab being shut down and recreated (Thompson, p. 222). The downfall and subsequent resurrection of the Houston crime lab mirrors the larger story of the ups and downs of the American crime lab, an institutional newcomer to the law enforcement scene.

Because millions of viewers watch media depictions of crime labs in shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Crime Scene and Bones, judges have considered instructing jurors on the so-called CSI-effect.3 But the impact of the modern crime lab on criminal justice is far more complex than what is shown on television. The crime lab has permitted a stunning growth in the use of forensic evidence in criminal cases, but it has also brought with it new challenges, scandals, and concerns (Thompson, pp. 150-61). These range from poor quality control (Thompson, p. 44), backlogs in processing material (Thompson, pp. 46-49), privacy breaches, to outright fraud and misuses of the science (Thompson, pp. 39-43). Today, the scientific community is increasingly involved in rethinking the standards crime labs use,4 while judges and the bar have had to improvise as they intervene to untangle the mass scandals that result when crime lab work goes terribly wrong in thousands or even tens of thousands of cases.5 Scholars have studied the institution of the prosecutor, the public defender, and the operation of criminal courts; now the crime lab is deservedly receiving academic attention.

Three wonderful recent books examine different aspects of the changing relationship between science and criminal law. In this Review, I hope to do justice to all three, and I hope that what I write can encourage you carefully read each of these remarkable books. The case of George Rodriguez illustrates why the crime lab has entered a time of crisis. I will discuss that case and the larger story of the Houston lab, to introduce the first of three books: Sandra Guerra Thompson's Cops in Lab Coats: Curbing Wrongful Convictions Through Independent Forensic Laboratories.6 Second, I will turn to Erin Murphy's7 book, Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA, to explore why DNA testing is no panacea for these growing problems and may instead actually magnify some of them. …

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