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Sharing The Blame For Forensics’ Failures

April 1, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 13

The review of “Failed Evidence” by David A. Harris furthers some biased claims about forensic science (C&EN, Feb. 18, page 50). The book and the review were written by defense attorneys, and both give a limited perspective of this discipline. The book’s subtitle, “Why Law Enforcement Resists Science,” confirms the bias. So what are the arguments?

The bombing of a Spanish train station in 2004 produced a fingerprint “match” by the FBI from reproduced images sent by the Spanish police. The Spanish police disagreed with the finding and resolved the issue by comparison of the original print with another individual’s. Pressures, whether time or political, often lead to technical errors. To avoid these, the National Academy of Sciences report recommends that forensic scientists be separate from police departments, and many forensic practitioners concur.

The next point is that forensic science is not science and that there are “problems” with fingerprint identification, firearms identification, pattern evidence, hair and fiber analysis, forensic odontology, and blood pattern analysis. More than 120 years of practical experience and hundreds of papers in scores of journals and newsletters don’t establish a discipline? There is always room for disagreement in science but really—only DNA testing is a science?

Then we hear about the exonerations using DNA by the Innocence Project. Okay, who would endorse sending innocent people to prison? But in the O. J. Simpson trial, the DNA evidence was attacked because it did not meet the proper standards of evidence collection. Yet DNA evidence collected before proper standards were developed is submitted as exculpatory evidence by the Innocence Project. Why is it wrong in one case and not in another? Any discipline has practitioners who are incompetent and/or unethical; forensic science is no different. Appeals courts do quite a business reversing legal decisions, so should we decide to eliminate sections of the law because lawyers make mistakes?

Lawyers control every step of the legal process. The decision to suppress or include evidence is controlled by defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges while police departments control the access and processing of crime scenes. It’s a tough way to do science.

After 42 years in forensic science, I would say candidly that if lawyers want a better criminal justice system, they should start with themselves. Forensic scientists work within the world lawyers have created.

Charles S. Tumosa
Timonium, Md.



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