If you've seen any crime show on television in the last decade odds are you've heard all about the importance of forensic evidence: DNA evidence, blood splatter patterns and fingerprints. These are vital tools in solving crimes on and off the screen. However, recent studies have shown that real life crime labs aren't nearly as efficient as their fictional cousins.
A study done by the National Academy of Sciences pinpointed three specific problems.
- Scientific evidence isn't nearly as accurate as people believe
- The majority of crime labs are understaffed, underfunded and under-equipped
- There is a pressing need for a National Institute of Forensic Science
Together these three problems spell big trouble and seriously bring into question evidence collected not only in current and future crimes but also in past crimes.
Accuracy of Scientific Evidence is Questionable
The report sheds doubt on the accuracy and reliability of many types of scientific evidence. The findings of the Academy are presented in "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward."
Scientific evidence often bears a lot of weight when it comes to investigating crimes and prosecuting criminals. Juries are carefully instructed about how they should evaluate this type of evidence.
Unfortunately, there is a misconception that scientific evidence is 100% accurate. That simply isn't true. For example, DNA evidence can't prove that a man is the father of a child. It can only prove that he could be.
In relation to other types of scientific evidence, the National Academy of Sciences found that none of them are "dependable enough to allow police officers to testify in court that it's 'a match' to a specific person."
This inaccuracy of scientific evidence, and the confusion surrounding it, has led to the conviction of many innocent people. An organization known as The Innocence Project has as its mission the freeing of innocent people through modern DNA testing. The last few months saw the release of seven people from jail, including one innocent man who had already spent 20 years there for a crime he didn't commit.
Study Finds Crime Labs Understaffed and Underfunded
As if the inaccuracy of scientific evidence weren't bad enough, the National Academy of Sciences also found that crime labs across the country aren't able to analyze all the material they receive because they need more staff and more funding. Oftentimes equipment isn't cutting edge either which increases the chance of error.
Being short staffed is a significant problem for the majority of crime labs. Over 80% of the labs studied were understaffed. This means there simply aren't enough people to do all the work. This can lead to burnout and sloppy testing due to overworking.
Labs also are in serious need of additional funds and equipment. More than 350 labs across the country had these problems. Without proper equipment and money to refurbish, replace, and stay current, results aren't as accurate as they could be. Labs and personnel can't be expected to produce high quality results under these conditions.
National Organization Needed
A national organization is needed to address these problems and others. Procedures aren't consistent from one lab to the other which can call into question the accuracy of data. There is also a risk that because there is no certification process that the work of some labs could be called into question as being biased toward putting someone in jail regardless of whether their guilt is clear. One of the panel's chairmen, Judge Harry T. Edwards said, "Science should serve the law. Law enforcement shouldn't drive the science."
In order to address the inconsistencies, the study calls for the establishment of a "National Institute of Forensic Science." A national organization could set up protocols to be followed by labs across the country so that a result in a lab in California could be duplicated in a lab in Florida. This would ensure a uniform set of standards and the objectivity of the testing.
It'll take time to implement changes to the system. However, based on these findings, change is necessary to ensure that justice is done. There needs to be a national organization which can oversee and accredit labs to do forensic work. This oversight will help ensure that cutting edge technology is used, that labs are fully staffed and have adequate equipment, and that science and not politics or ignorance helps determine results.
Until such time as these safeguards can be put in place, people, particularly those who serve on juries, should be aware of the limitations of such types of evidence and the problems with putting blind faith in the scientific evidence. Changes can be made, but they will take time to implement. Meanwhile, innocent men and women are suffering in jail and many more could join them thanks to the fallibility of forensic evidence and the poor conditions under which it is tested.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How can I try to use the advances in forensic science to have a case reinvestigated and potentially help free a family member or friend from prison?
- What can I do to help prove paternity of a child if DNA evidence isn't 100% conclusive?
- If I'm charged with a crime and forensic evidence is involved, should I take any steps to have testing done by a private lab, and is such testing allowed?
- Are there any organizations providing ratings and reviews of state forensic labs so I can find out about the quality of labs in my state?