When it comes to forensic evidence and science, Americans have a distinct image in their minds: shiny state-of-the-art crime labs, high-tech machinery with revolutionary fingerprint and bullet testing, DNA results revealed in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, these images only exist in the realm of popular television crime dramas. Known as the CSI Effect, due to the popular television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, not to mention top-rated crime shows “Dexter”, “Bones”, and “NCIS”, Americans have been brainwashed into believing this is how crime labs function in our country today. The tragic reality of the current state of forensic evidence practices have little resemblance with these fast-paced, tech-savvy, genius scientist characters and crime labs. Instead, Americans would be horrified to know that crime labs are rampant with misconduct and operate with no scientific validation nor federal regulation.
In April 2015, the FBI and the Justice Department released a shocking report formally acknowledging that nearly every examiner in the FBI microscopic hair comparison unit provided false testimony with erroneous statements in at least 90 percent of cases over twenty years before 2000. Even more horrifying is that 32 of the defendants in these tainted cases were sentenced to death, 14 of whom have already been executed or died in prison. Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), stated, “What we were finding was that the [FBI] examiners … wouldn’t just simply say that there was a microscopic similarity [between the two hairs], but they would go beyond that and say it was a 100 percent match, essentially misleading the jury into concluding that the evidence had a certain value that it didn’t actually have.” In some cases, the hairs found at a crime scene were not even human, but animal hair from dogs or pets.
Sadly, this issue is an epidemic in our country, with notable examples including:
Massachusetts: Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the Massachusetts lab drug analysis unit, was charged for manipulating drug tests at the lab by deliberately tainting drug evidence, not testing all drug samples, mixing evidence so it would test positive for drugs when actually clean, and forging signatures on drug testing paperwork – compromising at least 34,000 cases since her time working at the lab. By the end of 2014, judges in Massachusetts have reviewed over 1,200 cases related to Dookhan’s work, and at least 286 defendants were released. Some defendants have also filed civil suits against the state, claiming they have been wrongfully convicted. Dookhan was sentenced to three years in prison.
In addition to Dookhan, yet another Massachusetts forensic examiner, Sonja Farak, was addicted to drugs and was convicted for stealing and using drugs from evidence, as well as tampering with samples. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Detroit, Michigan: The Detroit Police Department shut down its crime laboratory in 2008 after an audit revealed grave errors in the work completed for its cases, most likely resulting in numerous wrongful convictions. A random selection of shooting cases was re-examined, and auditors found serious errors in 19 out of 200.
San Francisco, California: In 2015, the San Francisco Police Department began re-examining over 1,400 criminal cases that used DNA evidence work completed by a crime-lab technician who failed a DNA proficiency exam the previous year and was barred from prosecuting evidence. This is followed by the 2010 scandal of the same San Francisco crime lab, in which a former examiner repeatedly stole and used cocaine from seized evidence.
Chicago, Illinois: A news investigative team uncovered multiple errors in internal Illinois State Police lab audits and reports going back to 2003, with switched test samples, destroyed samples, errors in blood and urine testing, and improper scientific methods being used.
St. Paul, Minnesota: Independent consultants discovered serious errors and failures in nearly every area of the St. Paul Police crime lab, including “sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures”, and in over 40 percent of fingerprint cases, examiners mistakenly destroyed at least one-third of seized fingerprints as they misidentified them as unusable, and did not understand the basic techniques on how to properly inspect a fingerprint.
Although the majority of forensic scientists and examiners are responsible and ethical, those who do engage in blatant forensic misconduct end up tainting tens of thousands of cases, thus being responsible for wrongfully imprisoning potentially hundreds of innocent people.
In addition to outright forensic misconduct, forensic science often fails due to the lack of scientific validation of its practices and methods.
Take fingerprinting for example. In addition to the case of St. Paul’s crime lab, the cautionary tale of Brandon Mayfield proves how alarming the use of fingerprinting is as a legitimate forensic evidence. In March 2004, terrorists coordinated bombings on commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, killing 191 people and injuring over eighteen hundred people. The Spanish police retrieved a partial fingerprint and sent a digital copy over to the FBI. A senior FBI examiner confirmed with 100% certainty that the fingerprint belonged to Mayfield, whose prints were in the database from his military service and a previous arrest. An additional three fingerprint experts all affirmed the print matched Mayfield, despite the fact that Mayfield did not have a valid passport for international travel, and there were no records of Mayfield leaving the United States in over ten years. The FBI insisted they were correct with their finding, until the Spanish police positively matched the fingerprint to an Algerian man living in Spain. Mayfield was released from prison a few months after being targeted as an international terrorist. It is frightening how three so-called fingerprinting “experts” all claimed with absolute confidence that Mayfield was the perpetrator, despite the undeniable fact he could not have done so. The problem lies in the fact that the foundation of fingerprinting science is a shaky one at best. Fingerprints have long been considered to be individually unique, but the process of matching prints has no statistically or scientifically valid model.
Contrary to popular belief, the forensic sciences are fallacious with inaccurate scientific methods and practices. Major flaws have been exposed in many of the forensic science disciplines – including bite mark analysis, arson fire science, hair analysis, and even faulty DNA evidence.
How to fix the system
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report making several recommendations on how to improve forensic science, such as making independent crime labs that are not held accountable to local and state agencies, the creation of a federal body to set national scientific standards and laws, funding for research in order to validate the best techniques, technology, methods, practices, as well as reporting peer-reviewed results according to a national protocol.
In 2013, the Department of Justice established the National Commission on Forensic Science, in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to improve the reliability and validity of forensic science. But many have doubts on the practicality of the commission as it has no enforcement mechanism, and will likely take decades to enact any real lasting change with forensic science reform.