A Failure of Forensics (Part 2)

An Interview with Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett and Houston Forensic Science Center’s CEO and President, Dr. Peter Stout

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. 

Expert Testimony

  • Experts testimony, regardless of its accuracy, is highly persuasive to juries.

  • Standard for expert testimony

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.  

  • Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak

    • 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.

Quality Control

  • 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:

  • Quality control

  • Expert reliability 

  • Higher standards in the field 

  • Adequate crime lab funding

  • Timeliness to ensure the right to a speedy and fair trial

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