Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Crime Science

The Fight To Reform Forensic Science 93

Posted by samzenpus
from the these-are-not-the-swabs-you-are-looking-for dept.
carmendrahl writes "Despite a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that found the science in crime labs wanting, very little reform of forensic science has taken place. At a session about the Innocence Project, a group that exonerates prisoners with DNA evidence, speakers called on chemists to join the fight for reform. But forensic chemists don't all agree on what needs reforming."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Fight To Reform Forensic Science

Comments Filter:
  • First Step: ban tv (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spy Handler (822350) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:17PM (#41293875) Homepage Journal
    People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.
    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:30PM (#41293981) Homepage Journal

      People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.

      What, you mean they can't magically increase the pixel resolution of any image or video, just by looking at it and saying, "enhance" over and over???

      Blasphemer!

    • by Cute Fuzzy Bunny (2234232) on Monday September 10, 2012 @06:08PM (#41294255)

      People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.

      I was on a jury a few years back, and the first thing out of the prosecutors mouth was "This isn't csi. We don't have DNA evidence. We aren't going to bring out 10 dramatic witnesses", etc. Made me wonder why we're contemplating putting someone in jail for the rest of their lives if we aren't interested in spending the money on the evidence needed to really confirm a jury finding.

      I know some things that happen on tv aren't even plausible in real life at any price. But some of the stuff that gets passed in front of a jury is pretty weak.

    • A lot of judges will address just that during jury duty now. Had it happen last time I went.

      They also need to explain that "circumstantial" evidence does not mean "bad" or "unimportant" or "inadmissable." You can convict with only circumstantial if there is enough of it out to very high confidence level.

      • So, what is a high confidence level? 90% 99%? 1 part per million error? What is considered good enough statistics for a conviction??? What does "beyond a reasonable doubt" mean? If I'm only 99% sure someone did it, should I convict?

        (this is why I'm never picked for a jury).

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Beyond reasonable doubt isn't a statistical test. Essentially, if, on the evidence, there is some reasonable and believable explanation other than "the accused did it and is guilty", then there is a reasonable doubt and there should not be a conviction.

          By way of example, if I am charged with murder on the basis that I was sleeping with the victim and they found the victim's blood in my car (admittedly, a pretty weak case), a reasonable explanation might be that because we were sleeping together we often dro

        • So, what is a high confidence level? 90% 99%? 1 part per million error? What is considered good enough statistics for a conviction??? What does "beyond a reasonable doubt" mean? If I'm only 99% sure someone did it, should I convict?

          (this is why I'm never picked for a jury).

          I think its important to follow the whole process from start to finish. Since I've been on both side of this issue, several times, perhaps I have a unique perspective.

          The bottom line: you get the justice you can afford.

          The system relies on scaring the crap out of people charged with a crime so that they'll avoid the option of a jury trial, since that costs $3000-15000 and up, depending on the scope of the case. This forces people to plea out even if they're innocent, because most people can't afford justi

    • It wouldn't take nearly as long as it does if someone would just build a GUI interface using Visual Basic to track a criminal's IP address.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Dahamma (304068)

      Enhance! [youtube.com]

      • by Mashiki (184564)

        Rotate 75Deg on the z-axis, while in soviet RUSSIA!

        It's the only way to be sure...

    • Is there really a TV show by that name? How about 'Redundancy Department: Department of Redundancy'? I'd watch that, watch that I would.
  • Must-see Frontline (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digitalaudiorock (1130835) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:17PM (#41293881)

    I posted this link on a related story some time back. This is a must see if you think you know how bad forensic science (or lack of science) really is:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/ [pbs.org]

    • A better term would be forensic business

    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:28PM (#41293973) Homepage Journal

      I posted this link on a related story some time back. This is a must see if you think you know how bad forensic science (or lack of science) really is:

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/ [pbs.org]

      Here's the ProPublica article [propublica.org] written in conjunction with the PBS Frontline episode linked above, for those who like to read rather than watch.

      • Hrm, the article refers to DNA evidence as a "gold standard". I suppose its better than fingerprint analysis, but I do wonder if DNA evidence is also trusted too far.

        • by pepty (1976012)
          You can pretty much choose what level of false positives you're willing to tolerate when matching the DNA in two (undegraded, uncontaminated) biological samples - just pick the appropriate technique. "Choosing" the samples is another thing ...
        • Hrm, the article refers to DNA evidence as a "gold standard". I suppose its better than fingerprint analysis, but I do wonder if DNA evidence is also trusted too far.

          I don't think ProPublica was trying to imply that DNA evidence is in itself infallible - it is the "gold standard" in the sense that DNA forensics is based on actual science, whereas most-if-not-all other forensic techniques are steeped in voodoo, speculation, and the purchase of various "certifications." DNA still has it's setbacks, namely in how it's collected and stored, but overall it is the only forensic 'science' that's actually deserving of the title.

    • by Kagato (116051) on Monday September 10, 2012 @06:01PM (#41294209)

      People should keep in mind that the "Crime Lab" isn't an independent laboratory. A lot of people think that the crime lab is there to find the scientific truth (just like in CSI), when in fact they are there to serve the needs of the police and/or the prosecution. A lot of the time that means cherry picking what tests they are going to run to suit the needs presupposed by the authorities.

      The sloppy science is just an extension of the prevailing attitude. Labs are often run in a highly politicized environment where the emphasis is getting convictions. Most of the time the budget is tied to that as well. In fact most police run labs aren't even accredited.

      Until the crime lab is an independent fixture of the state that both the prosecution and defense can use it's going to be a problem.

      • by plover (150551) *

        RTFA. They addressed this very topic. They said the FBI lab was run this way, but the investigator from Philadelphia said that he never felt pressure to opine one way or another.

        The FBI lab was forced to undergo serious changes as a result.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2012 @07:14PM (#41294697)

        Citation? People should keep in mind that you don't know what you're talking about.

        I work at a forensic lab that's nominally under the budgetary authority of a police agency, so I speak from personal experience when I say that I've never seen a case where anyone has been "cherry picking what tests they are going to run to suit the needs presupposed by the authorities".
        We generally don't have a wide range of tests to chose from in any given scenario. They tell us what they suspect is present and we tell them if that's possible or impossible.

        I've also never seen even an inkling of pressure as to what conclusions to be drawn by lab management. We also go out of our way to offer equal time and access to defense teams and experts, even though they're often actively hostile. It's true that we work with the police and prosecution more often than not, but that's a structural artifact that arises from the fact that there's usually no defense team once we find evidence that contradicts the prosecutions case since charges are usually dropped. We do post-conviction testing when it's requested without prejudice.

        Lab management don't care the slightest bit about convictions and usually don't pay any attention to cases after we've testified. As far as I know, budgets are tied most closely to case output and backlogs. I don't think anyone even tracks convictions at our lab, much less ties them to budgets.

        As for accreditation, I can conclusively say you're wrong, as any lab that lacks ISO 17025 accreditation from an external accreditation body is not allowed access to CODIS by the FBI, making DNA nearly useless. That's on top of annual internal audits and FBI audits.

        If you actually have recent personal experience to back up your statements, it has to be from somewhere outside the USA or some bizarre world lab. It sounds like you're describing the state of affairs 20 years ago or more.

        I actually agree that labs should be under independent authority, but only to avoid the appearance of impropriety rather than any evidence of actual issues.

        • by pepty (1976012)
          How often are tests run blind? For example, say you have fingerprint evidence and want to see if it matches a particular suspect. Is standard practice to 1: compare the evidence to the suspect's fingerprint directly; or 2: put the suspect's fingerprint in a database, run the evidence against the database, evaluate the hits to find the best match, and only after the final determination was made actually unblind the evidence and find out who belongs to the fingerprint?

          Same goes for DNA, though for that I'

        • by sjames (1099)

          Here's one [businessinsider.com]. That doesn't mean all labs have those problems, but certainly a prominent one seems to have.

          A key quote from C. Fred Whitehurst (former FBI agent):

          "Guys in the lab wanting to ‘solve’ the case and be heroes might have pushed the envelope and been the guy who did what no one else could do," he said. "I have no doubt there will be more exonerations.”

        • You don't get to say what gets tested and what sort of evidence you want to try to recover. That means that someone in the "chain of events" before you already makes the decision if they think it will "help the case" if some test gets done. Depending on what their interpretation of "helping the case" is, things either get tested fair and balanced, with the possibility that a lot of community money gets spent without a conviction, or as little money as possible gets spent, with unknown consequences for justi
        • And what assurance can you offer us poor peons that DNA collected will not be kept forever - to be snythesized and planted for a future case?

          And given that you're in the belly of the State beast, what is your personal opinon of 'voluntary' collection of DNA samples (he didn't submit anything? GUILTY) from a community or neighborhood (obviously never one with fancy gates)?
        • The 2006 Duke LaCrosse case showed how badly the financial dependence of the lab on public officials compromised the defendants' rights.
        • by Kagato (116051)

          There's a scandal going on in my state right now. St. Paul crime lab, which serves a good chunk of the 16th largest metropolitan area in the US, was not accredited and was reportedly so sloppy that they are having to retry and retest a tremendous number of samples. The local media coverage has shined a spotlight on the fact that a lot of labs aren't accredited and there's no law requiring them to be.

          DNA is the tip of the iceberg for labs. The majority of the work is drugs, guns and fingerprints.

          The most

  • is like numbers in restaurants.
  • by MikeRT (947531) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:25PM (#41293943) Homepage

    One of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in blog posts on prominent civil libertarians' blogs is that the judges rarely, if ever, call out blatant bullshit such as "bite mark analysis" or sanction prosecutors for withholding evidence. We need reforms that let judges be swiftly fired in some of these cases.

    • by Kagato (116051)

      Almost all judges are lawyers. Most of which started as prosecutors. You can't be an esteemed law professor and get appointed to the federal bench anymore. The republicans will filibuster it.

  • Forensic liars (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:28PM (#41293967)

    The problem with forensic science is that it's less a science and more an art. Take identifying the flash point of a fire for example -- it's not as easy as people say or suspect. For years, "scientists" would point to certain fracture patterns or scorching marks and say that was the source, but there was never any studies done on it. It was mostly speculation, compounded by experience. Without any feedback on whether they were actually right or wrong, they developed a false sense of confidence. And in court, confidence + authority = conviction.

    The problem is that the legal system doesn't use scientific standards, it uses legal standards. And the law is based on experience -- it is forever looking backwards. A precident set 200 years ago is just as applicable in a court today as it was in the intervening years. Science, on the other hand, only considers the most current understanding relevant. And that's where the problems start. The law says that once a kind of forensic examination carries legal weight, then even if it is later conclusively proven scientifically to be false, it does not overturn past convictions, nor does it prevent its use in the present.

    Our justice system is not about fairness or justice -- it is about maintaining public perception of order, which is a separate and distinct concept. It can be quite orderly and efficient to never allow a new trial for the convicted... it is not necessarily fair.

    • Re:Forensic liars (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jomegat (706411) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:37PM (#41294037)
      An ex-attorney friend of mine once observed, "We do not have a justice system. We have a legal system." It's an important thing to remember.
    • Take identifying the flash point of a fire for example
      Flash point, the lowest temperature at which a given liquid will ignite. Gasoline for example ignites at -43 C or -45 F. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_point [wikipedia.org]
      I think you may have meant "point or source of ignition" but your statement makes no sense. I just pased my Firefighter Level 1 (nfpa 1001). There is lots of science and studies behind investigating fires. Perhaps you are confused between something you saw on a movie and something you heard
      • Re:Forensic liars (Score:4, Informative)

        by pepty (1976012) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:01PM (#41295877)

        There is lots of science and studies behind investigating fires. Perhaps you are confused between something you saw on a movie and something you heard in real life.

        Probably he was confused between real life and real life in Texas, which probably executed an innocent man (Cameron Willingham) in 2004 based on old standards for point of origin and use of accelerants evidence.

    • by pepty (1976012)

      The problem is that the legal system doesn't use scientific standards, it uses legal standards.

      The Daubert standard might have fixed that somewhat - until it was watered down.

      Wiki:

      original Daubert standard:

      Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable. Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication. The known or potential error rate. The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation. The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

      Now it's:

      A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) The expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

    • by sjames (1099)

      That is sadly true. I cannot even imagine the depraved mindset it takes for a prosecutor faced with incontrovertible evidence that a man is innocent to fight against his immediate release. If there is true evil in the world, surely that is it.

  • by wbr1 (2538558) on Monday September 10, 2012 @05:36PM (#41294031)
    Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results. Especially in election years or for high profile casrs.
    Forensic science should be done behind a blind. I.E., with no name or trackable case number attached to the evidence, by a lab in an entirely different physical area than the case.
    Anonymous methods of communication can be devised to pass requests back and forth.
    In addition, whenever possible the work should be peer reviewed as in redone, again anoymously by another lab.
    We spend millions locking up people for joints, this is peoples entire lives that are ruined by mistakes, over zealouness, and -gasp- corruption.
    But, lile security theater, it is not about safety, but the illusion of safety. Oh, and raking in tax dollars for a job done wrong.
    • by Sooner Boomer (96864) <sooner.boomr@g m a i l . c om> on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:07PM (#41295147) Journal

      Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results.

      More likely they are willing to do whatever they can to "fight crime". As an example, I give you the case of Joyce Gilcrist [wikimedia.org]. From the Wilipedia entry

      "Joyce Gilchrist is a former forensic chemist who had participated in over 3,000 criminal cases in 21 years while working for the Oklahoma City police department, and who was accused of falsifying evidence. Her evidence led in part to 23 people being sentenced to death, 11 of whom have been executed."

      We'll never know how many of those 3000 were actually innocent, while the guilty walked free. She should have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder through depraved indifference, but that's just my opinion.

      • by TheLink (130905)
        To me it goes past indifference to declare a match when there is none.

        She's definitely a very dangerous criminal in my eyes.
    • by TheEyes (1686556)

      Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results. Especially in election years or for high profile casrs.

      Not even a little. The lab I work in doesn't care one whit about PD or DA "pressure", whatever you think that is. We do what they order, just like we do whatever the defense (or even the defendants themselves, when they choose to defend themselves) orders, but only so far as doing the tests they want. Our methods determine our results, not anything ridiculous like "politics" or "pressure".

      Forensic science should be done behind a blind. I.E., with no name or trackable case number attached to the evidence, by a lab in an entirely different physical area than the case.
      Anonymous methods of communication can be devised to pass requests back and forth.

      God, what a nightmare that would be. Can you imagine the chain of custody issues that would result from evidence criss-c

      • He may have gone a bit far with saying it should be done in a different state (due to time constraints) but improper blinding is just bad science.

        if someone it testing something and believes and it's not properly blinded then their results will tend to reflect their beliefs.

        nobody in the lab should ever know that sample 1234ABC43 is a sample from "the jones case".
        They get sample 1234ABC43. they give the results for 1234ABC43.

        failing to do this would be flawed science.

        They may not mean to, they may think the

  • How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuff to show people how much of it real and how much is BS and what is junk science.

    • I believe that one comes after the episode where they take on the easy hackability of RFID.
      • After the break, we strap eleventy hundred pounds of C4 to an RFID tag in our attempt to hack it!

        I sort of drifted away from that show when it started catering to the Michael Bay fans and felt the need to WARN viewers that there was some actual science content coming up.

    • by Kagato (116051)

      CSI is a bit of the tail waging the dog. I know one company that changed their UI to rotate through random fingerprint and mugshot photos when searching because there was an expectation to make the thing look like it does on CSI.

  • It is almost as if most forensic scientific labs are funded primarily through money gathered based on convictions, and not on innocence.

    Kind of like how our prisons are clogged up with non-violent offenders to provide cheap prison labor even though most of those people are no threat to our society.

    But so long as most of this comes from prosecutorial funds, why should we expect otherwise?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Cheap labor? I look at what we spend per prisoner here n California, and "cheap" isn't the first word that occurs to me. Also don't see a lot of actual labor happening.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Just because it isn't cheap for you doesn't mean it isn't cheap for those who run the prison. They basically double taking money for housing and security while also turning a profit running an old fashioned slave operation.

  • Unqualified people find unequivocally more convincing despite the fact that are more likely to be wrong.

    Qualified statement are more accurate but less convincing to the unqualified.

    The problem here is not the scientific evidence it is unqualified juries.

  • The status quo of the forensic labs working for a law enforcement agency needs to change. Law enforcement agencies will hire people with a law enforcement mindset. They collect and process material looking for probative evidence while not seeking exculpatory evidence. Management can pressure them to provide a desired result. Independent forensic labs could solve part of this problem. Not necessarily private labs, but not part of a law enforcement agency.

    Here is a case study in how not to col

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the demigodic party. -- Dennis Ritchie

Working...