Monday, February 23, 2009

More on Junk Science in the Courts

I know, I know, I'm starting to sound like a broken MP3, but this National Academy of Sciences report on the state of forensic science in the criminal justice system really is a big deal. I wanted to point reader(s) to Radley Balko's thoughts about it over at Reason.

He has a different concern, one of remedies. The report's main suggestion - a federal agency to oversee forensic sciences - won't really do the trick. As Balko points out, the FBI lab itself has been heavily criticized. Another government agency won't do the trick:

The problem with criminal forensics is the government monopoly on courtroom science in criminal trials. In too many states, forensic evidence is sent only to state-owned or state-operated crime labs. There’s no competition, no peer review, and in some cases, crime lab workers either report to or can be pressured by prosecutors when test results don’t confirm preexisting theories about how a crime may have occurred. This sort of bias can creep in unintentionally, or it can be more overt. But studies show it’s always there. The only way to compensate for it is to bring competitors into the game, other labs who gain by revealing another lab’s mistakes. Every other area of science is steered by the peer review process. It’s really unconscionable that criminal forensics—where there’s so much at stake—has existed and evolved so long without it.
That bias played heavily in some of the Fred Zain cases, IIRC. Rather than operating independently, Zain would often learn who the "right" suspect was and craft lab results appropriately.

Balko goes on to provide some suggestions, which have some merit. So they'll probably never go into effect.

No comments: