Problems in forensic labs have contributed to scores of wrongful convictions, resulting in innocent individuals being imprisoned for years, sometimes decades. In recent years, major scandals have revealed problems at labs because of inadequate resources, lack of standards and oversight, management issues, and insufficient training. In part 1 of this 2-part series, Professor Brandon Garrett of Duke Law School and Dr. Peter Stout of the Houston Forensic Science Center explain the impact forensic evidence can have at trial and the severe consequences when forensic labs get it wrong. They discuss the sway of forensic evidence among juries, how judges determine the admissibility of forensic evidence, and the role of defense attorneys in the courtroom.
Watch Part 2 of A Failure of Forensics.
Inaccurate and inconsistent forensic findings, especially DNA evidence, have directly impacted the trials and convictions in an innumerable amount of court cases. Many do not get the opportunity for retrial, and those who do are exonerated after spending years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
Josiah Sutton v. The State of Texas, convicted and sentenced to 25 years for rape and abuction, despite several inconsistencies in the forensic evidence. Only after an independent investigation was the DNA reexamined, excluding Sutton. This led to his exoneration after serving 4 and a half years.
George Rodriguez v. The City of Houston, Rodriguez was sentenced to 60 years for a rape he did not commit. The ruling hinged on a ‘similar’ strand of hair, later found to be false evidence. Rodriguez served 17 years before being exonerated.
The Importance of Timeliness of Good Forensics
Having the right answer too late can result in injustice. The momentum of criminal prosecutions can result in pressure to settle or accept a plea deal even where the defendant is wrongfully accused. Timely and accurate exclusionary evidence can avoid such mistakes before they snowball.
Lydell Grant v. The State of Texas, Grant’s conviction for muder in the first degree relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and inconclusive fingernail scrapings. He was sentenced to life in prison, after serving nine years and maintaining his innocence, probabilistic genotyping excluded his profile.
Experts testimony, regardless of its accuracy, is highly persuasive to juries.
Keith Harward v. the Commonwealth of Virginia, spent 33 years in prison for captital murder, rape, robbery, and burglary after a crime lab analyst gave inacurrate testimony that Harward could not be excluded.
Standard for expert testimony
Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., sets the standard for expert scientific testimony, and whether or not it is admissible.
Federal Rule of Evidence (Rule 702), amended in 2000, states that scientific methods must be ‘generally accepted’, peer reviewed, and tested with a known rate of error
Crime Lab Funding
According to Dr. Stout of the Houston Forensics Science Center, crime labs across the country are significantly underfunded, both at the state and the federal level. The DOJ, for example, allocates $200 million to publicly funded crime labs, which according to Dr. Stout falls short on the demands required to run effective forensics labs.
Forensic analysts in MA were convicted of using drugs that were submitted for evidence instead of testing them.
This cost to the city from overturned convictions and settlements is valued at over $30million, with over 30,000 cases dismissed or overturned as a result.
Accreditation and licensing standards vary across states
Independent investigators should be conducting random audits of crime labs nationally
There is not enough personnel to conduct frequent blind testing, where controlled samples are put into the workflow.
Safeguard sensitive data.
How to Approach Forensics Failures
The failure of forensics labs to review evidence in a timely and accurate manner, result in systemic injustices and wrongful convictions. Essential methods towards reducing these faults include:
Higher standards in the field
Adequate crime lab funding
Timeliness to ensure the right to a speedy and fair trial