Forensic Science Pitfalls

July 21st, 2015 by Attorney Dan Carman

Forensic Science

If there’s one thing people like more than a good mystery, it’s a clever way to solve it. Take crime shows, for instance. On-screen detectives, lab specialists and attorneys have been pushing scientific limits and capturing imaginations for decades. However, the awe-inspiring forensic science-based breadcrumb trails we love to follow on our favorite programs often are not based on thorough scientific research and facts. Turns out, neither is much of the forensic evidence used in our actual courtrooms.

The field of forensic science can be traced back thousands of years to when the Chinese first used fingerprinting as identification. Since then, progress has been made in several areas such as ballistics analysis, bloodstain patterns, toxicology, voiceprint identification, bite mark matching, shoe prints, hair analysis and burn patterns. In 1987, forensic DNA analysis made its first appearance in a U.S. courtroom, and new techniques are developed all the time. In fact, air samples allegedly containing chemical compounds emitted by decaying human remains were admitted in the U.S. for the first time during the well-publicized Casey Anthony murder trial.

However, neither science nor analysts are infallible, and several alarming stories are making their way into the public eye. In April, the Justice Department admitted that almost 93 percent of examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit “gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

Advances in the field of arson investigation have cast doubt on longstanding techniques for determining the origin and cause of a fire, revealing that classic arson “indicators” are no such thing.

In 2005, the FBI abandoned efforts to trace bullets to a specific manufacturer’s batch through analyzing their chemical composition after its methodology was scientifically debunked. The entire method of analyzing bite marks is also currently in question. Some of the more egregious examples of dubious forensic evidence used by state crime labs are on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ website.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published an overwhelming review of the forensic sciences. It was concluded that while nuclear DNA analysis has a strong research-based foundation, there is a “notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods.” Yet while these sciences themselves are under the microscope, old and new unproven practices continue to be used in criminal trials. The failure to account for junk science continues to be used to send innocent people to prison.

If you have been charged with a crime or have questions about how the law might apply to your situation, discuss it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, KY-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.