By Sonia Mahajan
This year marks the Innocence Project’s 25th anniversary. Created in 1992, the Innocence Project aims to “[exonerate] the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and [reform] the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices.” As of this article’s publication, the organization has used DNA evidence to exonerate 351 people. The Innocence Project identifies six main causes for wrongful convictions: “incentivized informants, inadequate defense, government misconduct, false confessions or admissions, eyewitness misidentification,” and the “misapplication of forensic science.” The most jarring and often least-suspected element is flawed forensics, which was found in 46% of exonerations.
The controversy surrounding forensic science was brought to public attention in early October, when popular late-night host John Oliver did a nineteen-minute segment on his show, Last Week Tonight. Oliver and the Innocence Project cited two reports, one published in 2009 and one published in 2016, both of which effectively state that forensic science is not reliable. The 2016 report to former President Obama on the state of forensics claimed, “the historical reality [of forensic science is] that many methods were devised as rough heuristics to aid criminal investigations and were not grounded in the validation practices of scientific research.” The same report also found that flawed methodology had been used to assert the scientific validity of “bullet lead examination,” “latent fingerprints,” “hair analysis,” and “bitemarks.”
In addition, forensic scientists themselves may be influenced by a “cognitive bias,” subconsciously misusing forensic analysis to confirm their suspicions in a case. “Nearly all crime laboratories are tied to the prosecution in criminal cases,” meaning that forensic scientists are biased against the defendant. This inhibits proper forensic analysis, which is necessary for a just evaluation of criminal cases. Consequently, forensic scientists’ biases result in scientifically unsound methods that may influence what could be a life-or-death decision for the defendant.
Despite these flaws, some aspects of forensics can be scientifically accurate and properly used in court. One of the authors of the 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report stated in a PBS Frontline article that “DNA is really the only discipline among the forensic disciplines that consistently produces results that you can rely on with a fair level of confidence.” This is part of the reason why the Innocence Project focuses on DNA-evidence-based exonerations and why DNA analysis is considered “the gold standard” of forensics. DNA evidence can be found in “biological evidence,” such as “sweat, skin, blood, tissue,” and “hair,” as well as in “saliva” and other bodily fluids. While contamination is always a risk, DNA evidence is still significantly more reliable than other forms of evidence, such as bite mark analysis and scent analysis, which have no reliable scientific value (there are no standards for bite mark or scent analysis, and no established scientific procedure for matching bite marks or scent).
In fact, DNA analysis is one of the few forensic science disciplines that is based on “reliable principles and methods” for “single-source samples” (DNA samples from just a single individual). According to the report to Obama in 2016, scientists worked to develop standards to ensure that DNA evidence was reliable after a 1989 New York court case “declared [DNA evidence] inadmissible” in court. The reliability of DNA evidence was also developed in part by medical scientists, who held DNA to scientific standards in other fields. Most other forensic disciplines do not have the same standards of reliability and do not have the same input from the medical community, granting DNA analysis special repute.
Flawed forensics affects the criminal justice system when “scientifically illiterate” judges and juries are unfamiliar with forensic techniques and are thus incapable of knowing whether the scientific evidence that is being presented to them is accurate. In its video, “Getting it Right: Forensics,” the Innocence Project cited “vague and confusing terms” as another issue posed by flawed forensics. Forensic experts will often say that their analyses are “within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” when, in reality, this phrase has no meaning in the scientific community and simply works to further play on the judge and jury’s little knowledge of forensic science. The 2016 report to Obama found many similar terms and statements that “may be taken as implying certainty” actually have no scientific basis to claim that level of conviction.
Forensics can be useful in many cases. The applications of this field are exemplified in great causes, such as The Innocence Project, which uses DNA analysis to exonerate the innocent. Yet nothing is perfect; while the American criminal justice system is effective in many ways, it also has its issues. Though it sometimes seems as if our criminal justice system is incredibly flawed, even with regards to its supposedly fact-based application of science, the Innocence Project’s 25th anniversary means that our society is growing increasingly aware of and is interested in fixing the problems we see today.