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The Fight To Reform Forensic Science

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the these-are-not-the-swabs-you-are-looking-for dept.

Crime 93

carmendrahl writes "Despite a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that found the science in crime labs wanting, very little reform of forensic science has taken place. At a session about the Innocence Project, a group that exonerates prisoners with DNA evidence, speakers called on chemists to join the fight for reform. But forensic chemists don't all agree on what needs reforming."

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First Step: ban tv (4, Insightful)

Spy Handler (822350) | about 2 years ago | (#41293875)

People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.

Re:First Step: ban tv (4, Funny)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 2 years ago | (#41293981)

People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.

What, you mean they can't magically increase the pixel resolution of any image or video, just by looking at it and saying, "enhance" over and over???

Blasphemer!

Re:First Step: ban tv (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41293987)

Goofy fuck ass! Goofy fuck ass! Goofy fuck ass! Goofy fuck ass!

Re:First Step: ban tv (1)

Derekloffin (741455) | about 2 years ago | (#41294167)

Or even better, 'digitize it' when they are already viewing it on a computer. /sigh

Re:First Step: ban tv (3, Insightful)

Cute Fuzzy Bunny (2234232) | about 2 years ago | (#41294255)

People watch shows like Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime and think forensic results are infallible and always available in less than 40 minutes.

I was on a jury a few years back, and the first thing out of the prosecutors mouth was "This isn't csi. We don't have DNA evidence. We aren't going to bring out 10 dramatic witnesses", etc. Made me wonder why we're contemplating putting someone in jail for the rest of their lives if we aren't interested in spending the money on the evidence needed to really confirm a jury finding.

I know some things that happen on tv aren't even plausible in real life at any price. But some of the stuff that gets passed in front of a jury is pretty weak.

Re:First Step: ban tv (2)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | about 2 years ago | (#41294261)

A lot of judges will address just that during jury duty now. Had it happen last time I went.

They also need to explain that "circumstantial" evidence does not mean "bad" or "unimportant" or "inadmissable." You can convict with only circumstantial if there is enough of it out to very high confidence level.

Re:First Step: ban tv (1)

joe_frisch (1366229) | about 2 years ago | (#41294719)

So, what is a high confidence level? 90% 99%? 1 part per million error? What is considered good enough statistics for a conviction??? What does "beyond a reasonable doubt" mean? If I'm only 99% sure someone did it, should I convict?

(this is why I'm never picked for a jury).

Re:First Step: ban tv (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41295487)

Beyond reasonable doubt isn't a statistical test. Essentially, if, on the evidence, there is some reasonable and believable explanation other than "the accused did it and is guilty", then there is a reasonable doubt and there should not be a conviction.

By way of example, if I am charged with murder on the basis that I was sleeping with the victim and they found the victim's blood in my car (admittedly, a pretty weak case), a reasonable explanation might be that because we were sleeping together we often drove around in the same car and one day the victim had a nose bleed and bled in my car.

If I relate that version of events and the jury believes that I am or am likely to be telling the truth, that would constitute reasonable doubt as it is an alternate version of events which addresses the evidence against me and does not lead to the conclusion that I did it and am guilty.

Re:First Step: ban tv (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41297797)

The higher you put the demanded confidence level the more criminals will walk, the lower you put it the more innocents will be convicted. There is no magic level that will give perfect results, there will always be false positives and false negatives. The question then becomes how damaging it is to society to convict innocent people, and how damaging it is to not convict criminals. As convicting an innocent often (but not always) implies a criminal is not convicted, convicting innocents should be considered more damaging, which leads to a high confidence level requirement. But a 100% confidence level means you let pretty much everyone walk, which would be bad for society (there are many nutters who freely confess to crimes they didn't commit, 100% confidence is hard to reach). Minimizing the damage to society would put the confidence level high but below 100%. I don't know what exact level that would be.

I live in a country without jury trial where judges have been criticized for not being good at weighing evidence because they generally don't know enough about probability theory and statistics to get it right. The damage is limited because the majority of cases is straightforward, but in complex cases errors are made. The above way of approaching it was part of the criticism (or that's how I remember it).

Re:First Step: ban tv (1)

Cute Fuzzy Bunny (2234232) | about 2 years ago | (#41299903)

So, what is a high confidence level? 90% 99%? 1 part per million error? What is considered good enough statistics for a conviction??? What does "beyond a reasonable doubt" mean? If I'm only 99% sure someone did it, should I convict?

(this is why I'm never picked for a jury).

I think its important to follow the whole process from start to finish. Since I've been on both side of this issue, several times, perhaps I have a unique perspective.

The bottom line: you get the justice you can afford.

The system relies on scaring the crap out of people charged with a crime so that they'll avoid the option of a jury trial, since that costs $3000-15000 and up, depending on the scope of the case. This forces people to plea out even if they're innocent, because most people can't afford justice. If you're indigent, you'll get a free lawyer thats worth somewhat less than they're paid.

If you're serious about proving your innocence, you can probably get off if there isn't concrete evidence, although even there a five figure trial and a stupid jury will work in your favor. Most juries are people found to be less than smart, without a lot of well developed opinions, easily swayed by clever commentary. In other scenario's, they're called 'voters'. The only time I get picked for a jury is when I act dumb and appear to have no fixed opinions.

On the other side of the table is the police, who will make up stuff on police reports, labs full of incompetents who produce the "evidence" necessary to force a plea deal, and a DA measured by conviction rate, not just conviction rate. Couple that with a system of fines and high dollar privately operated penal institutions, and you get the idea that we're just herding people through the system to keep the conviction and incarceration rates up.

Lets look at my situation. I was charged with a misdemeanor that carried a couple of grand in fines and related items. Got a lawyer locked in for the case for $2500. He looked things over for a few weeks, we poked the cop and the DA for a couple of hours in court, and he said we could go forward as is and I'd lose. For about $7k we could hire "Some whore experts that will say whatever we want, 50/50 whether the jury goes for it" and for about $14-15k we could "Hire some top notch highly respected experts and put on a show. That'll scare the DA off his plea deal and he'll probably give you something lesser with a smaller fine, and theres a good 80-90% chance of acquittal...but you never know what a jury will do for sure".

In the end I took the original plea deal and bought a bunch of stuff with the money I saved, to make myself feel better about being convicted unjustly. I was able to pay for the couple of days of jail time to serve at home, while the guys with no money had to go sit in jail for a couple of days. I also could afford the fines, while most people would have been seriously screwed. Oh, and I could afford bail, so I got to sleep at home the night of my arrest while most people spent it on a concrete floor.

So we have at least 3 kinds of justice. The kind where many people because of skin color, neighborhood of residence or wallet thickness end up taking the pipe and paying up or sitting in jail, the kind where you can throw a little money at it and get a reduction or practical elimination of consequences, and when you're filthy rich and somewhat less than ridiculously guilty and you get off entirely.

On the jury end of things, I really never saw a concrete case. Lots of slip shod evidence and procedure, questionable test results passed off as solid, lots of 'he said/she said', circumstantial junk and I was never sure enough to put someone in jail. Everybody else wanted to get it over with so they could get home, they 'had a feeling!'.

Lab wise, in my case there was a test involved. The test was apparently done at the beginning of the month, recorded somehow (although its not clear how) and then that recording transferred to the official forms almost a month later. But that process isn't how its supposed to be done, and it appeared that there were many places along the process where procedures weren't followed and the likely result was a bad test. The same lab was later found to have samples with mismatched DNA from the alleged source people.

Yet the DA and the judge were unswayed by this, and said they'd allow the evidence to be presented with our rebuttal. Then the judge told my lawyer that he would have to try the case that week, when my lawyer was already booked for another case, he refused a continuance, and then said he was considering revoking my bail because I was "being difficult". Turns out he was retiring and this was his last case, and he wanted to get it over with. He'd also been censured for looking up hot womens names and addresses in the DMV database from license plate info given to him by a friend, so the friend could then harass the women. Real quality fellow, and a real upholder of the law.

So thats what you get from a close look at both sides of this. Thankfully I'm a wealthy white man that lives in a nice neighborhood. If I were a black kid in a hoodie, apparently I'd be dead or in jail.

Re:First Step: ban tv (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41295603)

Or the suspect is black.

Re:First Step: ban tv (2)

Normal Dan (1053064) | about 2 years ago | (#41294395)

It wouldn't take nearly as long as it does if someone would just build a GUI interface using Visual Basic to track a criminal's IP address.

Re:First Step: ban tv (1, Funny)

Dahamma (304068) | about 2 years ago | (#41296115)

Enhance! [youtube.com]

Re:First Step: ban tv (2)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#41296187)

Rotate 75Deg on the z-axis, while in soviet RUSSIA!

It's the only way to be sure...

Re:First Step: ban tv (1)

oldmac31310 (1845668) | about 2 years ago | (#41302493)

Is there really a TV show by that name? How about 'Redundancy Department: Department of Redundancy'? I'd watch that, watch that I would.

Must-see Frontline (5, Interesting)

digitalaudiorock (1130835) | about 2 years ago | (#41293881)

I posted this link on a related story some time back. This is a must see if you think you know how bad forensic science (or lack of science) really is:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/ [pbs.org]

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 2 years ago | (#41293937)

A better term would be forensic business

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41293983)

A better term would be forensic business

I would testify to that but I lack the credentials.

Re:Must-see Frontline (4, Informative)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 2 years ago | (#41293973)

I posted this link on a related story some time back. This is a must see if you think you know how bad forensic science (or lack of science) really is:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/ [pbs.org]

Here's the ProPublica article [propublica.org] written in conjunction with the PBS Frontline episode linked above, for those who like to read rather than watch.

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

genkernel (1761338) | about 2 years ago | (#41294849)

Hrm, the article refers to DNA evidence as a "gold standard". I suppose its better than fingerprint analysis, but I do wonder if DNA evidence is also trusted too far.

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

pepty (1976012) | about 2 years ago | (#41295609)

You can pretty much choose what level of false positives you're willing to tolerate when matching the DNA in two (undegraded, uncontaminated) biological samples - just pick the appropriate technique. "Choosing" the samples is another thing ...

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 2 years ago | (#41300491)

Hrm, the article refers to DNA evidence as a "gold standard". I suppose its better than fingerprint analysis, but I do wonder if DNA evidence is also trusted too far.

I don't think ProPublica was trying to imply that DNA evidence is in itself infallible - it is the "gold standard" in the sense that DNA forensics is based on actual science, whereas most-if-not-all other forensic techniques are steeped in voodoo, speculation, and the purchase of various "certifications." DNA still has it's setbacks, namely in how it's collected and stored, but overall it is the only forensic 'science' that's actually deserving of the title.

Re:Must-see Frontline (4, Insightful)

Kagato (116051) | about 2 years ago | (#41294209)

People should keep in mind that the "Crime Lab" isn't an independent laboratory. A lot of people think that the crime lab is there to find the scientific truth (just like in CSI), when in fact they are there to serve the needs of the police and/or the prosecution. A lot of the time that means cherry picking what tests they are going to run to suit the needs presupposed by the authorities.

The sloppy science is just an extension of the prevailing attitude. Labs are often run in a highly politicized environment where the emphasis is getting convictions. Most of the time the budget is tied to that as well. In fact most police run labs aren't even accredited.

Until the crime lab is an independent fixture of the state that both the prosecution and defense can use it's going to be a problem.

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

plover (150551) | about 2 years ago | (#41294561)

RTFA. They addressed this very topic. They said the FBI lab was run this way, but the investigator from Philadelphia said that he never felt pressure to opine one way or another.

The FBI lab was forced to undergo serious changes as a result.

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294953)

...the investigator from Philadelphia said that he never felt pressure to opine one way or another.

That lack of pressure could simply be because he always gave his boss the 'correct' answer without being asked. Two people with the same bias are still biased.

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

plover (150551) | about 2 years ago | (#41306169)

At some point, I do trust that at least some of the people who have these hard jobs still do them for honest and noble reasons.

I think it's really hard for guys like street cops to maintain objectivity when they're facing lying criminals 8 hours out of every day; and these are awful people, like guys who beat up their wives. They're usually faced with scum who clearly deserve more punishment than a night in lockup will give them, but they can do nothing within the bounds of the law. But the lab guys don't have these same stressors. Most just want to find the truth.

At least the optimist in me still believes that.

Re:Must-see Frontline (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294697)

Citation? People should keep in mind that you don't know what you're talking about.

I work at a forensic lab that's nominally under the budgetary authority of a police agency, so I speak from personal experience when I say that I've never seen a case where anyone has been "cherry picking what tests they are going to run to suit the needs presupposed by the authorities".
We generally don't have a wide range of tests to chose from in any given scenario. They tell us what they suspect is present and we tell them if that's possible or impossible.

I've also never seen even an inkling of pressure as to what conclusions to be drawn by lab management. We also go out of our way to offer equal time and access to defense teams and experts, even though they're often actively hostile. It's true that we work with the police and prosecution more often than not, but that's a structural artifact that arises from the fact that there's usually no defense team once we find evidence that contradicts the prosecutions case since charges are usually dropped. We do post-conviction testing when it's requested without prejudice.

Lab management don't care the slightest bit about convictions and usually don't pay any attention to cases after we've testified. As far as I know, budgets are tied most closely to case output and backlogs. I don't think anyone even tracks convictions at our lab, much less ties them to budgets.

As for accreditation, I can conclusively say you're wrong, as any lab that lacks ISO 17025 accreditation from an external accreditation body is not allowed access to CODIS by the FBI, making DNA nearly useless. That's on top of annual internal audits and FBI audits.

If you actually have recent personal experience to back up your statements, it has to be from somewhere outside the USA or some bizarre world lab. It sounds like you're describing the state of affairs 20 years ago or more.

I actually agree that labs should be under independent authority, but only to avoid the appearance of impropriety rather than any evidence of actual issues.

Re:Must-see Frontline (2)

pepty (1976012) | about 2 years ago | (#41295719)

How often are tests run blind? For example, say you have fingerprint evidence and want to see if it matches a particular suspect. Is standard practice to 1: compare the evidence to the suspect's fingerprint directly; or 2: put the suspect's fingerprint in a database, run the evidence against the database, evaluate the hits to find the best match, and only after the final determination was made actually unblind the evidence and find out who belongs to the fingerprint?

Same goes for DNA, though for that I'd think the problems would be with evidence collection/contamination rather than the analysis itself.

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300209)

Depends on the case and the request by the police agency. If they want to know whether X suspect left Y print, they are compared directly. The process is a lot more complicated than this with blind second and third verifications, but Richard Jewel shows that things can still go wrong. Fingerprints are complicated by an inherent difficulty in applying statistical models and error rates because print info is difficult to quantify at a significantly high level to be useful. DNA is quantifiable enough to provide useful and reliable statistics to inform the strength of an inclusion.

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41296597)

I think the real pickle is with forensic science before DNA.

Re:Must-see Frontline (2)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41297057)

Here's one [businessinsider.com] . That doesn't mean all labs have those problems, but certainly a prominent one seems to have.

A key quote from C. Fred Whitehurst (former FBI agent):

"Guys in the lab wanting to ‘solve’ the case and be heroes might have pushed the envelope and been the guy who did what no one else could do," he said. "I have no doubt there will be more exonerations.”

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300325)

That's a real problem. I know most scientists I work with feel like we don't have friends in the process, as most prosecutors are perfectly willing to make us look bad on the stand to serve the needs of a single case. We very much refuse to go out on a limb to make a controversial call because we know it will blow back on our reputation and chum the waters for all future defense cross-examination.

so you don't get to say what gets tested (1)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | about 2 years ago | (#41297219)

You don't get to say what gets tested and what sort of evidence you want to try to recover. That means that someone in the "chain of events" before you already makes the decision if they think it will "help the case" if some test gets done. Depending on what their interpretation of "helping the case" is, things either get tested fair and balanced, with the possibility that a lot of community money gets spent without a conviction, or as little money as possible gets spent, with unknown consequences for justice and crime solve ratings. This may shift the "blame" away from the actual labs, but it doesn't mean that there isn't any improvement in the process possible.

Re:so you don't get to say what gets tested (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300397)

Agreed, but that's why we work evidence for the defense as well, if they want it. They're far more likely to go to a private lab, which is fine, but we'll do it. If you don't know the answers ahead of time, it's hard to judge which evidence is most important. At the same time, we can't analyze everything. So it's up to the police and the defendant, via their legal teams, to decide how to proceed with limited resources.

Assurance (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | about 2 years ago | (#41298055)

And what assurance can you offer us poor peons that DNA collected will not be kept forever - to be snythesized and planted for a future case?

And given that you're in the belly of the State beast, what is your personal opinon of 'voluntary' collection of DNA samples (he didn't submit anything? GUILTY) from a community or neighborhood (obviously never one with fancy gates)?

Re:Assurance (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300543)

Nothing that a paranoiac would consider sufficient, except that we have real constraints on the amount of material we can securely store. Plus, anyone who wanted to frame you would never go to the trouble of synthesizing your DNA. It's not technically difficult, but why bother when you can just send a guy into your house for a piece of dirty laundry or used bandaid to plant at the scene. Actually, I believe there are reliable tests for synthetic DNA based on methylation levels, but using synthetic DNA to frame someone is just silly when there are much simpler sources of non-synthetic DNA readily available.

There are lots of humans involved in the justice system and humans make mistakes, even if you assume everyone's acting in good faith. Personally, I would never submit a sample without a court order under any circumstances, if I didn't work here. But I have to be in the database to work here, so it's a moot point.

Nifong (1)

harvey the nerd (582806) | about 2 years ago | (#41298447)

The 2006 Duke LaCrosse case showed how badly the financial dependence of the lab on public officials compromised the defendants' rights.

Re:Nifong (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300121)

I believe the controversy wrt DNA in this case came about when the public crime lab came back with results that the prosecutor didn't like, so he took the evidence to a private DNA lab. That private lab may have left out results favorable to the defense. You're right that private for-profit labs are largely dependant on funds from legal teams (mostly prosecution) and should be looked at with the same level of suspicion as for-profit police. Don't assume that public labs operate the same way though.

Re:Nifong (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300403)

I don't recall there being much in the way of lab data in the Duke LaCrasse case.

I do remember allegations that the method of getting the alleged victim to identify the perp from a line-up was done in a deficient manner.

And I remember that lots of racial stereotypes (against rich white college students) were played up in the media by the friends of the alleged victim.

I think the case began to fall apart when ATM records proved that an alleged attacker was not on-scene when the attack happened.

(Double-check on Wiki: apparently, the accusation of rape was made after March 28, 2006. On April 10, 2006, State crime labs reported none of the 46 members of the LaCrosse team had left DNA on the body of the woman who claimed to have been raped. A private lab came to a similar conclusion, though the full results were not shared with the attorneys of the defendants. It looks like the Duke LaCrosse case contains good work by various labs, and shoddy work by a prosecutor.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_rape_case

Misconduct by a police-funded lab can be bad. But if you're going to argue that a prominent case tarnishes police lab-science, pick a case in which the lab's conduct is provably bad, rather than one in which the lab couldn't support the prosecutor.)

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41299621)

Here's my citation for you.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/30/north-carolina-crime-lab_n_887516.html

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41301033)

Sounds like a lab had people falsifying results, not exactly an indictment of forensic science as a discipline or labs as a whole. I could link a half dozen more historical cases like that, usually single analysts who came from an era where forensic scientists were actual police officers and behaved as such. That's not how anyone I know was trained though. We definitely hold cops at arm's length and bend over backwards to offer equal access to defense attorneys.

The state should come down on that lab like a ton of bricks, but you can never design a system that involves humans that prevents people from acting in bad faith. Obviously, those problems should have been caught far earlier, but withheld information is far harder to detect than altered testing or made up results. That's why private labs and external audits exist, to confirm results and keep everyone honest. The article doesn't mention anything about the motivations behind the problems, lack of accreditations, or any ties between convictions and budgets.

As someone else mentioned, historically speaking, the bad analysts who have been caught have mostly operated in a "hero" mentality, trying to "solve" the case. That's got nothing to do with political pressure or bad budgetary incentives. It's just about people misunderstanding the relative importance of their place in the process. Forensic evidence is just one piece of the puzzle and doesn't prove guilt or innocence.

Re:Must-see Frontline (1)

Kagato (116051) | about 2 years ago | (#41300299)

There's a scandal going on in my state right now. St. Paul crime lab, which serves a good chunk of the 16th largest metropolitan area in the US, was not accredited and was reportedly so sloppy that they are having to retry and retest a tremendous number of samples. The local media coverage has shined a spotlight on the fact that a lot of labs aren't accredited and there's no law requiring them to be.

DNA is the tip of the iceberg for labs. The majority of the work is drugs, guns and fingerprints.

The most glaring example I can think of is a 60 minutes story from a numbers years ago. Crime lab testified a DNA match, but upon further review post conviction the lab tests showed that the blood type didn't match between samples. So why wasn't that a red flag for the lab? Well they interviewed the former head of the lab and his position was that it was the responsibility of the defense to deal with. The lab is simply stating an opinion on the tests.

The AC sounds like they run a tight ship. But I contend that's the exception, not the rule. In particular with City and County run/contracted labs.

Re:Must-see Frontline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41301589)

But I contend that's the exception, not the rule. In particular with City and County run/contracted labs.

It sounds like that lab is incredibly badly run and funded. Without accreditation, there's no external checks to make sure your lab is following best practices or even adhering to its own policies. I know no defense attorney in my jurisdiction would fail to question accreditation status. That's a huge red flag. But I don't think you know just how many public labs are out there. I would estimate at nearly 1,000. The fact that there are unaccredited, unqualified labs running reflects badly, but hardly represents the entirety of the discipline. I know lots of people at lots of labs that are run safely and competently. In this era of extreme budget cuts, that may start to change, but I don't know that you have enough data to claim that your instance is emblematic of a global rule. Bad labs are the exception because bad labs get reformed or shut down. For-profit labs are another matter entirely.

Spin. Anecdote. Spin. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41302603)

Your anecdotal evidence and your spin do nothing to refute the fact that bad labs, misuse, errors, and prosecutorial misconduct go on every day.

Spin. Anecdote. Spin.

If you look at the historical record (for example all those cases, including capital cases, where DNA exonerates) you see that every tech(nology) has been subverted and misused. DNA has been and will be as well - nature of the beast. The prosecutor is to be feared, and kept very wary of - they hold the power of imprisonment, life and death (look at conviction rates.) Unless you are rich and connected like OJ. And they got him in the end too.

Spin. Anecdote. Spin.

Every negative cite or example you are given is labelled by you as an exception, or the musings of a paranoiac. Every glowing example you give is supposed to be common and widespread (public) institutional practice.

Sorry, given the state of reporting, bias, and ass-covering by everyone, including BOTH private and public sectors, I don't buy it.

Spin. Anecdote. Spin.

Re:Spin. Anecdote. Spin. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41305385)

Of course those all exist. I didn't think I was trying to refute that. We identify problems, isolate causes, and institute new rules and policies to prevent those problems. It's not the 100% problem free discipline that it needs to be, but I don't know a better method.

The bit about the paranoiac was intended as jokey though. The idea of synthesizing DNA to frame someone sounds scary, but it sounds a little silly to anyone who works in forensics.

There isn't a ton of data to work with here, other than the splashy failures that get reported on. Do you want to read articles about how the local lab passed its 20th consecutive ISO audit without a finding? I don't. So all I have to work from is personal experience. I don't see how I'm spinning anything, its all just opinions on the internet. The only readily available data I can think of is to look at the accreditation status of your local labs. The two accreditation agencies I'm aware of are ASCLD-LAB and FQS-I, but I'm sure there are a few more. They both have publicly available listings of labs that meet the standards set and of labs that didn't. Personally, I don't think evidence from unaccredited labs should be admissible in court, but no one is asking me.

www.ascld-lab.org/labstatus
fqsforensics.org/search-accredited-companies.aspx

Science in court (1)

oldhack (1037484) | about 2 years ago | (#41293907)

is like numbers in restaurants.

Judges are a major problem (2)

MikeRT (947531) | about 2 years ago | (#41293943)

One of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in blog posts on prominent civil libertarians' blogs is that the judges rarely, if ever, call out blatant bullshit such as "bite mark analysis" or sanction prosecutors for withholding evidence. We need reforms that let judges be swiftly fired in some of these cases.

Re:Judges are a major problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294001)

One of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in blog posts on prominent civil libertarians' blogs is that the judges rarely, if ever, call out blatant bullshit such as "bite mark analysis" or sanction prosecutors for withholding evidence. We need reforms that let judges be swiftly fired in some of these cases.

If you ask me it shouldn't just be fired, this is a crime. Their negligence takes peoples lives.

Re:Judges are a major problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294051)

Maybe the "prominent civil libertarians" should get a clue a learn that that is the defense attorney's job, not the judge. And how exactly is a judge supposed to know if evidence has been withheld?

Re:Judges are a major problem (1)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41294213)

It does sometimes come out later, or a defense investigation discovers it. The point is, when the judge does find out, he should gavel the prosecutor's head, not just tsk-tsk and move on.

You couldn't be more wrong. (1)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 2 years ago | (#41294359)

It is, in fact, the judges job to determine what evidence is admissible in court. The judge has access to all the evidence either side wishes to produce. He is in as good a position as anybody (excepting the prosecution) to know whether evidence is being withheld, and has the authority to hold parties contempt if he finds they are guilty of misconduct, like withholding evidence.

Re:You couldn't be more wrong. (1)

bws111 (1216812) | about 2 years ago | (#41294451)

I am pretty sure that withholding evidence means that prosecutor has seen evidence that may exonerate the defendant, and has not reported it to the court (or the defense). If he has shown it to the judge, the defense also has it, and it has not been withheld.

Re:Judges are a major problem (0)

Kagato (116051) | about 2 years ago | (#41294227)

Almost all judges are lawyers. Most of which started as prosecutors. You can't be an esteemed law professor and get appointed to the federal bench anymore. The republicans will filibuster it.

Re:Judges are a major problem (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294465)

Yes, "Borking" was clearly done by republicans. Yet another dumb-as-shit democrat.

Re:Judges are a major problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41300643)

Because the democrats didn't filibuster any of Bush's nominees.

Re:Judges are a major problem (1)

Kagato (116051) | about 2 years ago | (#41308561)

Who said that? The difference is quantity. There's no question that the Republicans use the filibuster over 3 times as much as the democrats did when they were in the minority. Thee blocked a couple dozen appointed back in the day, but then the bipartisan "gang of 14" came up with concreate rules on when a filibuster was appropriate, thus ended the practice for the most part. The gang of 14 pact was boken when the tea party came in, and since very few appointees get through. And just to make sure congress doesn't actually go out of session anymore. That way you can't have a recess appointment.

If this continues after Obama wins again the federal courts are in real trouble because the retirement rate far exceeds the confirmation rate.

And to add whip cream on this turd, I'll point out that Republicans held up the commissioning of hundreds of military officers because they were irked about base placements. How's that for supporting the troops.

Forensic liars (5, Insightful)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#41293967)

The problem with forensic science is that it's less a science and more an art. Take identifying the flash point of a fire for example -- it's not as easy as people say or suspect. For years, "scientists" would point to certain fracture patterns or scorching marks and say that was the source, but there was never any studies done on it. It was mostly speculation, compounded by experience. Without any feedback on whether they were actually right or wrong, they developed a false sense of confidence. And in court, confidence + authority = conviction.

The problem is that the legal system doesn't use scientific standards, it uses legal standards. And the law is based on experience -- it is forever looking backwards. A precident set 200 years ago is just as applicable in a court today as it was in the intervening years. Science, on the other hand, only considers the most current understanding relevant. And that's where the problems start. The law says that once a kind of forensic examination carries legal weight, then even if it is later conclusively proven scientifically to be false, it does not overturn past convictions, nor does it prevent its use in the present.

Our justice system is not about fairness or justice -- it is about maintaining public perception of order, which is a separate and distinct concept. It can be quite orderly and efficient to never allow a new trial for the convicted... it is not necessarily fair.

Re:Forensic liars (4, Insightful)

jomegat (706411) | about 2 years ago | (#41294037)

An ex-attorney friend of mine once observed, "We do not have a justice system. We have a legal system." It's an important thing to remember.

Re:Forensic liars (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294157)

What was the cause for the "ex-"? Disbarment? Retirement? Mysterious car crash late at night in a remote location?

Re:Forensic liars (1)

jomegat (706411) | about 2 years ago | (#41307433)

He hated it. He quit practicing and became a sysadmin, but still maintains his license.

Re:Forensic liars (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294203)

And prison is not about reforming, only punishment.

Re:Forensic liars (1)

slackware 3.6 (2524328) | about 2 years ago | (#41294535)

Take identifying the flash point of a fire for example
Flash point, the lowest temperature at which a given liquid will ignite. Gasoline for example ignites at -43 C or -45 F. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_point [wikipedia.org]
I think you may have meant "point or source of ignition" but your statement makes no sense. I just pased my Firefighter Level 1 (nfpa 1001). There is lots of science and studies behind investigating fires. Perhaps you are confused between something you saw on a movie and something you heard in real life.

Re:Forensic liars (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294829)

Its more to do with history. There has over the last decade or so been a lot of effort put into understanding how fires really work. Before that things were a bit messy.

Re:Forensic liars (3, Informative)

pepty (1976012) | about 2 years ago | (#41295877)

There is lots of science and studies behind investigating fires. Perhaps you are confused between something you saw on a movie and something you heard in real life.

Probably he was confused between real life and real life in Texas, which probably executed an innocent man (Cameron Willingham) in 2004 based on old standards for point of origin and use of accelerants evidence.

Re:Forensic liars (2)

pepty (1976012) | about 2 years ago | (#41295771)

The problem is that the legal system doesn't use scientific standards, it uses legal standards.

The Daubert standard might have fixed that somewhat - until it was watered down.

Wiki:

original Daubert standard:

Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable. Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication. The known or potential error rate. The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation. The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Now it's:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) The expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Re:Forensic liars (2)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41297255)

That is sadly true. I cannot even imagine the depraved mindset it takes for a prosecutor faced with incontrovertible evidence that a man is innocent to fight against his immediate release. If there is true evil in the world, surely that is it.

What needs reform is.. (2)

wbr1 (2538558) | about 2 years ago | (#41294031)

Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results. Especially in election years or for high profile casrs.
Forensic science should be done behind a blind. I.E., with no name or trackable case number attached to the evidence, by a lab in an entirely different physical area than the case.
Anonymous methods of communication can be devised to pass requests back and forth.
In addition, whenever possible the work should be peer reviewed as in redone, again anoymously by another lab.
We spend millions locking up people for joints, this is peoples entire lives that are ruined by mistakes, over zealouness, and -gasp- corruption.
But, lile security theater, it is not about safety, but the illusion of safety. Oh, and raking in tax dollars for a job done wrong.

Re:What needs reform is.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294853)

Blind doesn't really work when the question is "do these two samples match?" anyone who can run the analysis can work out why you are asking.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

ShooterNeo (555040) | about 2 years ago | (#41295849)

This is why you send several control samples, labeled with specimen numbers.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

cusco (717999) | about 2 years ago | (#41300917)

Then be prepared to throw a frack of a lot more money at the crime labs, while most states at the moment are doing the exact opposite. Washington state has a backlog of DNA samples awaiting analysis that is weeks long. If you're going to give them three times the amount of work and not give them the resources to handle what they already have in the pipeline you've set them up to fail.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

pepty (1976012) | about 2 years ago | (#41295907)

Blind doesn't really work when the question is "do these two samples match?" anyone who can run the analysis can work out why you are asking.

That's why eyewitnesses are asked to identify a suspect from a lineup (or ideally, several sets of 6 or more photos) instead of just asking them "is this guy the one?". Run the analysis on the new sample. Compare it to a batch of different samples/analyses, one of which is the one of interest. Give different parts of the job to different people if necessary to keep the process blind.

Re:What needs reform is.. (4, Interesting)

Sooner Boomer (96864) | about 2 years ago | (#41295147)

Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results.

More likely they are willing to do whatever they can to "fight crime". As an example, I give you the case of Joyce Gilcrist [wikimedia.org] . From the Wilipedia entry

"Joyce Gilchrist is a former forensic chemist who had participated in over 3,000 criminal cases in 21 years while working for the Oklahoma City police department, and who was accused of falsifying evidence. Her evidence led in part to 23 people being sentenced to death, 11 of whom have been executed."

We'll never know how many of those 3000 were actually innocent, while the guilty walked free. She should have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder through depraved indifference, but that's just my opinion.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

TheLink (130905) | about 2 years ago | (#41301233)

To me it goes past indifference to declare a match when there is none.

She's definitely a very dangerous criminal in my eyes.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

TheEyes (1686556) | about 2 years ago | (#41296887)

Too often the forensic office is friends with and/or pressured by the police or DA to get results. Especially in election years or for high profile casrs.

Not even a little. The lab I work in doesn't care one whit about PD or DA "pressure", whatever you think that is. We do what they order, just like we do whatever the defense (or even the defendants themselves, when they choose to defend themselves) orders, but only so far as doing the tests they want. Our methods determine our results, not anything ridiculous like "politics" or "pressure".

Forensic science should be done behind a blind. I.E., with no name or trackable case number attached to the evidence, by a lab in an entirely different physical area than the case.
Anonymous methods of communication can be devised to pass requests back and forth.

God, what a nightmare that would be. Can you imagine the chain of custody issues that would result from evidence criss-crossing the country, especially when a lot of evidence has a limited turnaround time in order to meet constitutional requirements for a speedy trial. The OJ trial was decided, not because of any forensic science "problems", but because the chain of custody had holes in it, and that was just within LAPD and the LAPD's crime lab; imagine the problems with evidence criss-crossing the country with "annonymizing" tracking numbers and the like; you'd never be able to convict anyone of anything.

Not to mention the enormous expense of building a secure courier system the size of UPS to package, transport, and store evidence travelling all over the place like that.

In addition, whenever possible the work should be peer reviewed as in redone, again anoymously by another lab.

We do better than that: evidence is always made available for the defense, whenever it is asked for, to be sent to whatever outside, independent labs they want to use. This happens dozens of times a year, and only once has the outside lab come up with anything that contradicts what the crime lab itself came up with (it turned out that the unaccredited outside lab was at fault)

As for anonymously re-analyzing everything... how much money do you think is out there for redundant tests? The LAPD alone does 15,000 cases a year, just in the narcotics section; it would require the full-time work of over a dozen highly trained professionals, in a second state of the art lab, to redo all their work. That's millions of dollars a year, spent in what will be a futile effort to find fault with the first set of analyses, which will then proceed to be denegrated for also not being "independent" enough for you.

We spend millions locking up people for joints, this is peoples entire lives that are ruined by mistakes, over zealouness, and -gasp- corruption.
But, lile security theater, it is not about safety, but the illusion of safety. Oh, and raking in tax dollars for a job done wrong.

Now you're just galloping on to incresingly irrelevant points. Corruption and over-zealousness on the part of the police has nothing to do with forensic science labs, nor does the war on marijuana, even if it is an assinine waste of time.

Re:What needs reform is.. (1)

HungryHobo (1314109) | about 2 years ago | (#41299381)

He may have gone a bit far with saying it should be done in a different state (due to time constraints) but improper blinding is just bad science.

if someone it testing something and believes and it's not properly blinded then their results will tend to reflect their beliefs.

nobody in the lab should ever know that sample 1234ABC43 is a sample from "the jones case".
They get sample 1234ABC43. they give the results for 1234ABC43.

failing to do this would be flawed science.

They may not mean to, they may think they're doing everything perfectly but without proper blinding they almost certainly aren't.

How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuff (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about 2 years ago | (#41294035)

How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuff to show people how much of it real and how much is BS and what is junk science.

Re:How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuf (2)

Rod Beauvex (832040) | about 2 years ago | (#41294169)

I believe that one comes after the episode where they take on the easy hackability of RFID.

Re:How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuf (1)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | about 2 years ago | (#41294293)

After the break, we strap eleventy hundred pounds of C4 to an RFID tag in our attempt to hack it!

I sort of drifted away from that show when it started catering to the Michael Bay fans and felt the need to WARN viewers that there was some actual science content coming up.

Re:How about the mythbusters testing that CSI stuf (2)

Kagato (116051) | about 2 years ago | (#41294239)

CSI is a bit of the tail waging the dog. I know one company that changed their UI to rotate through random fingerprint and mugshot photos when searching because there was an expectation to make the thing look like it does on CSI.

It is as if their funding is based on convictions (1)

WillAffleckUW (858324) | about 2 years ago | (#41294075)

It is almost as if most forensic scientific labs are funded primarily through money gathered based on convictions, and not on innocence.

Kind of like how our prisons are clogged up with non-violent offenders to provide cheap prison labor even though most of those people are no threat to our society.

But so long as most of this comes from prosecutorial funds, why should we expect otherwise?

Re:It is as if their funding is based on convictio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294187)

It is. Moreover, since the knowledge of the above is so widespread, it is for them to prove otherwise.

Re:It is as if their funding is based on convictio (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294327)

Cheap labor? I look at what we spend per prisoner here n California, and "cheap" isn't the first word that occurs to me. Also don't see a lot of actual labor happening.

Re:It is as if their funding is based on convictio (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41295515)

Just because it isn't cheap for you doesn't mean it isn't cheap for those who run the prison. They basically double taking money for housing and security while also turning a profit running an old fashioned slave operation.

Re:It is as if their funding is based on convictio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294833)

It is almost as if you're suggesting an argument without actually making a positive assertion or providing any evidence of such. Can you cite any statistical correlations between forensic budgets and convictions from same or are you just throwing things up to see what sticks?

Re:It is as if their funding is based on convictio (1)

WillAffleckUW (858324) | about 2 years ago | (#41294859)

No, I am just basing it on my brother's old criminology text books.

But .. I'm not an AC.

mapdeepi (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294155)

tolong buka in yang ini yaa...
http://apianshare.blogspot.com/

Re:mapdeepi (1)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | about 2 years ago | (#41294337)

Yeah, that's easy for you to say.

An impartial forensic case arbiter is needed. (1)

couchslug (175151) | about 2 years ago | (#41294205)

I nominate Nancy Grace.

Forensic Evidence should never used for conviction (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41294965)

Only valid use of forensic evidence is to proof a person is not guilty! PERIOD!

Innocence Project (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41299609)

Name gives away true agenda, it is an umbrella campaign group aimed at overturning convictions and not to find out the truth innocence or guilt.

Unequivocally Qualified (1)

Martin Spamer (244245) | about 2 years ago | (#41299745)

Unqualified people find unequivocally more convincing despite the fact that are more likely to be wrong.

Qualified statement are more accurate but less convincing to the unqualified.

The problem here is not the scientific evidence it is unqualified juries.

Independent forensic labs (1)

djl4570 (801529) | about 2 years ago | (#41300661)

The status quo of the forensic labs working for a law enforcement agency needs to change. Law enforcement agencies will hire people with a law enforcement mindset. They collect and process material looking for probative evidence while not seeking exculpatory evidence. Management can pressure them to provide a desired result. Independent forensic labs could solve part of this problem. Not necessarily private labs, but not part of a law enforcement agency.

Here is a case study in how not to collect and store a sample. While not a law enforcement action the effect ruined a life:
http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/drlj/vol10/iss1/5/ [pepperdine.edu] Download the pdf.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederic_Whitehurst#FBI_career [wikipedia.org] and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Bureau_of_Investigation_Laboratory [wikipedia.org] offer some useful background on the topic.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2009/10/why_i_hate_star_trek.html [antipope.org] "Fill in the tech" applies to CSI shows as well. That's how we get infinitely sharp magnification and instant DNA results.
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