The Problems with Forensic Science
In the last few weeks, this blog has had quite a bit written about a trending podcast called In the Dark. This week, the focus will be on a particular episode that was released last week by another podcast: Science Vs.
In each episode of Science Vs, the host, Wendy Zukerman, compares one popular or controversial subject to the scientific studies that have been done on that subject. Last week, she tackled forensic science.
Generally speaking, forensic science is science as applied to criminal or civil cases. Forensic scientists are the men and women who examine the scientific evidence collected during an investigation. Examples of forensic evidence include cadaver decay, hair follicles, fingerprints, and teeth imprints. These are the four things that Science Vs examines.
The conclusions are startling. The science behind the science – in other words, the studies behind the use of these four forms of forensic science – shows that hair follicles and teeth imprints are not reliable forms of identification.
Forensic scientists are not able to take a hair left behind at a crime scene and say within a reasonable degree of certainty that it belongs to a certain person, even if looking at it under a microscope. Teeth imprints are also not reliable enough or unique enough to attach them to any individual with certainty.
Cadaver decay and fingerprints were shown through this podcast’s examination of scientific studies to be reliable…to a certain extent. Examining the rate of decay in a cadaver is very reliable if the conditions are perfect. Introduce any kind of imperfect conditions – for example, weather variation or the presence of cocaine in the body – and the time of death cannot be known with scientific certainty. There can be issues with knowing when a person died based on forensics.
The most surprising part of this episode might have been the study of fingerprint technology. We have all seen the crime dramas on television. We know what happens on those shows when detectives find a fingerprint. The fingerprint is scanned into a computer and run through a database of known criminals. Inevitably, the computer runs through all of the prints in the database until it finds the perfect match. That person is usually the perpetrator.
Real life does not work that way. Fingerprints can be run through a database to find the closest matches, but they are still prone to human error because a person has to determine whether or not the computer’s closest estimates are a match. While they get it right most of the time, they are not perfect. Furthermore, there is no standardized scale for how much a fingerprint found at a crime scene has to match a person’s fingerprint in order for forensic scientists to know with certainty that they are a match.
If this is the case, should we be using any of these things as evidence in trials? Maybe. It is important, however, for people to know that they are not exact sciences. The presence of a hair at a crime scene does not mean that the person who committed the crime can be known beyond a reasonable doubt. The same is true for times of death, fingerprints, and teeth imprints.
Hundreds of cases have been overturned because the forensic “science” used a couple of decades ago has now been proven to be false or, at best, unreliable. If you are facing the scary scenario presented by an upcoming trial, you need an experienced and knowledgeable lawyer who understands the inexact “science” in the forensic field. If this is you, please call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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