Forensic Science

CSI critics, rejoice: new research is part of a growing movement that believes forensic science has some serious problems to address.

Arizona State University law Professor Michael Saks recently talked about the growing concerns being voiced by members of the concisely-named Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community of the National Research Council. The NRC findings indicated shortcomings ranging from a lack of scientific research backing up forensic practices to problems that arise from having police departments do their own forensic work.

According to the NRC, unreliable forensic practices have gradually become more accepted in the courts over the past century. “As time goes by a little gets in,” Saks said.  “Once it starts to leak through, it bursts through.”

Saks portrayed the gravity of the problem by citing the fourth annual bite mark workshop hosted by the American Board of Forensic Odontology. The end results of one exercise at the workshop had a median of more than 63% of the participants condemning an innocent person. The outcomes of the first three studies by the ABFO were never released to the public.

The NRC’s findings, however, don’t have everyone convinced. Mesa Police Forensic Firearm Examiner Chris Gunsolley felt that the study was vague and overly simplified. He said the researchers lumped many different fields of forensic science together and made recommendations that often didn’t apply.

“Some of them I agree with,” Gunsolley said of the recommendations, “some of them I don’t think that they realize we already do.”

Gunsolley said that although some labs follow different protocols, most already train their forensic examiners using programs created by the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners that can last up to three years. He also spoke of the conservative nature of his unit and the many precautions that are taken throughout the undertaking of various forensic procedures.

Even if individual forensic units have a stellar track record, the picture as a whole still remains grim. This large-scale problem was illustrated by Saks. Using data from 86 cases where the accused were exonerated by DNA evidence, Saks concluded that incorrect forensic analyses were present in 63% of the wrongful convictions.

These revelations can be shocking to an average person who is used to the infallible nature of the crime shows on television. One of these people is ASU law student Jonathan Rowe, who was present for Saks’ talk.

“That’s kind of alarming to me,” Rowe said, “when criminal convictions and potentially people’s lives hang in the balance.”

But can anything be done to fix this problem? The NRC thinks so. They recommended to Congress that an entirely new regulatory body be created to oversee a total overhaul of forensic science in the United States.

This new group would oversee regulatory changes and ensure forensic units remain separate from police departments. Saks believes these changes may encounter resistance at first, but eventually would be accepted and become common practice.

Like so many other issues that are on the country’s to-do list, the next problem is finding the money for these changes. Cost-cutting is the focus of the incoming class of Republicans, and Saks is doubtful that much will be spent on a forensic science retooling.

Saks is patient though; he knows that science can be a plodding endeavor. “You get used to it,” Saks said,”… either they’ll make good progress, or I’ll get to write another article…”