What’s wrong with forensic science? Everything, says the paper


Forensic science is in dire need of a “system overhaul” that is less focused on strengthening prosecutions, according to a forthcoming article in the Alabama Law Review.

Most experts now agree that much of the forensic evidence presented in modern courtrooms has been “junk disguised as scientific analysis” and would benefit greatly from a series of abolitionist reforms, writing Maneka Sinha, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, author of the article.

He is also racially prejudiced, Sinha argued.

According to the newspaper, 24 percent of wrongful convictions were due to flawed forensic evidence, and 54 percent of those convictions involved black or Latin defendants.

It means that communities already more at risk being involved in the criminal justice system are further disadvantaged by the forensic science community, argues the article, titled “Radically Reinventing Forensic Evidence.”

“Real change requires reducing and withdrawing from prison institutions that create damage and replacing them with institutions designed to value the lives of blacks, brunettes and other marginalized people. “

Maneka sinha

But, Sinha notes, forensic science is so deeply resistant to change that it is “beyond ‘reform’ in the sense that adjustments at the edges cannot fix it.”

“On the contrary, to remove the problems that prevent the forensic science system from functioning as it claims – as a system providing reliable and objective evidence that can aid in the pursuit of justice – a systemic overhaul is needed,” writes Sinha. .

Even if extensive research has proven While many reforms are needed to keep forensic evidence reliable in court, such reforms offer a “veneer of reform” and little action has been taken, the report says.

Ironically, the extent to which untrained laymen tend to trust forensic evidence and mistakenly believe that it brings neutrality, fairness, precision and certainty to the criminal process has enabled forensic evidence to do exactly the opposite, ”Sinha writes.

Because forensic evidence is the most influential in the courtroom, science itself aligns closely with the prosecution side of the criminal justice system, Sinha said. Evidence which, due to vague national standards, is not completely valid or verifiable, can still be used to influence a jury.

This is one of the reasons prosecutors have resisted real change, Sinha argued.

Two reports that focused on major reforms and upheavals in the forensic science system, the NAS and PCAST, have been both widely undermined and discredited by prosecutors, as a way “to influence the landscape of forensic science,” Sinha said.

“The latest effort, riddled with scientific inaccuracies, misrepresentations and utterly bogus claims, appeared to be a last-ditch effort by the Department of Justice under former President Donald Trump to discredit the PCAST ​​report before the judges do not examine it further on admissibility. determinations, ”Sinha said.

“These reactions and attempts to undermine the PCAST ​​and NAS reports are among the most important collective efforts by prosecutors to influence the landscape of forensic science, but are by no means the only ones.”

Unlike other forms of science, which thrive on peer review, rigorous error checks, and continued research, forensic science exists primarily to close a criminal case, put more emphasis on speed rather than scientific research.

While there is some forensic science research that resembles other scientific standards, these comments are less common and less prevalent than in other fields, according to the report.

“Once a conviction is obtained, prosecutors have little incentive to encourage further research which could lead to findings that undermine forensic evidence that has proven to be convincing to judges and juries,” said the report.

“Instead, forensic pathologists often receive positive feedback for their work, regardless of the accuracy of their findings.”

Reforms stemming from previous studies have failed to have a significant impact on the judicial community, Sinha said. For example, the accreditation of forensic pathologists who testify in trials was intended to establish common standards between different forensic laboratories.

But the effort was found to be “weak” and “inadequate” to the needs, according to the report.

The lack of guidance to ensure the quality of forensic evidence makes it difficult to ensure that what has been submitted is accurate, Sinha said. Peer review, proper testing, and reliability are all lacking when reviewing forensic evidence.

“Commonly used forensic techniques can be made admissible by enveloping them in the traps of science – as defined by the relevant admissibility standards – even when what lies below has hardly been established as reliable.” Sinha wrote.

Since forensic evidence is presented as strict science in the courtroom, erroneous or invalid evidence can cause an innocent person to spend time in the criminal justice system that they don’t have. otherwise owed – resulting in significant damage to their mental health, finances, as well as employment, family life or housing status.

“Not only do medico-legal methods lead to prison harms; they also whitewash and legitimize it by masking surveillance, law enforcement and prosecution with the supposedly neutral and objective aura of “science”.

Sinha applied what she called an “abolitionist lens” to the future of forensic science, citing that just like the movement to fund the police, the forensic science system also needs to be completely rebuilt and restructured. in order to function properly.

“Forensic pathology can still be used to identify those who cause harm, as long as such methods are not used to channel people through the prison system and as long as communities are empowered to determine how and for what purposes the medico-method is used. -Legal can be used in achieving accountability, ”Sinha said.

The article is to appear in volume 73 of the Alabama Law Journal.

Please access the full report here.

Read more: Why we need a National Forensic Science Agency

Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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