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When will we see reforms in forensic evidence?

by | Dec 28, 2018 | Wrongful Convictions

“Some experts extrapolate far beyond what can be supported,” reads a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report about bloodstain pattern analysis. It adds, “The uncertainties associated with bloodstain-pattern analysis are enormous.”

Just a year later, Julie Rea of Illinois was exonerated. She had been convicted in 2002 of stabbing her 10-year-old son to death, based almost entirely on what turned out to be faulty bloodstain pattern analysis. She was later acquitted at retrial four years later. The defense challenged the forensic testimony and also presented new evidence that a serial killer who was wanted for a nearly identical crime had confessed to killing Rea’s son.

Exoneration hasn’t been nearly enough to restore Rea’s life. The $87,057 she received in compensation for her wrongful conviction wasn’t nearly enough. She suffers PTSD after enduring abuse in prison and from being labeled a child killer.

“I’ll always have a scarlet letter,” she says. “Nothing will ever make that go away.”

Faulty forensic science is a crisis in our criminal justice system

Far too many people have been wrongfully convicted based on faulty or exaggerated forensic science. For example, of the 362 people known to have been exonerated by DNA evidence, almost half were originally convicted due to bad forensic science.

That 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report challenged a number of forensic disciplines, including hair and fiber analysis, bite mark analysis, and shoe and tire impressions. The authors concluded that these disciplines are not based on peer-reviewed research but mainly rely on subjective interpretations by the practitioners.

Yet according to the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, few reforms have been made since that report was issued. Little to no new, rigorous research on bloodstain pattern analysis has been performed. Even though the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) declared in 2016 that bite mark analysis has no scientific basis, the technique is still admissible in courts around the country. The same goes for microscopic hair analysis, which has been found similarly lacking in scientific underpinnings.

As long as prosecutors continue to offer up such evidence and courts continue to allow it, there is little incentive for the system to change. Little incentive, that is, besides a wish to prevent injustice.

There is hope now for more significant reform with the start of a new independent nonprofit, the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences (CIFS). CIFS is bringing together real scientists and lawyers, judges, academics and policy makers to fulfill the goals of the 2009 NAS and 2016 PCAST reports to strengthen real science in the courtroom and preclude junk science. See the CIFS website for information.

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