These days, many (if not most) criminal cases rely on physical evidence from fingerprints and footprints to hair samples and DNA. After this evidence is gathered by law enforcement, it must be processed by forensic laboratories in order for it to be linked to a specific criminal case. A host of television dramas showcase the forensic lab process and its role in helping to "nab the culprit."
Here's something that many people don't realize: forensic labs are far from infallible. In fact, there have been numerous instances where processes, equipment, and technicians have produced results that are inaccurate - or even patently false. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences studied forensic science in 2009 and issued a report that was very troubling. Among the report's findings:
- A great deal of variability exists in forensic science methodologies, techniques, error rates, reliability, research, and reporting.
- Many forensic disciplines are not underpinned by a large body of published, peer-reviewed studies that establish their scientific basis or reliability.
- Only a few states require forensic labs to meet rigorous, mandatory accreditation and certification standards. A large percentage of U.S. forensic labs are understaffed and underfunded, resulting in a hefty backlog of cases, a decrease in the overall quality of work produced, and an increase in the possibility of errors being made.
- The majority of forensic labs operate under the auspices of law enforcement agencies, resulting in implied or overt pressure to produce results which mirror the goals of police and prosecutors.
- Lawyers and judges fail to rise to the task of proper handling of forensic evidence because of busy caseloads.
- Forensic Labs are too closely associated with prosecution agencies.
Over the next few weeks, this blog will detail specific instances of forensic lab failures across the nation in recent years. After reading this series, you may very well call into question the efficacy of forensic lab results that you hear about in the future.