Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul

Digital evidence examiners have no agreed-upon certification program or list of qualifications, in addition to other issues, a report to Congress points out.
That lack of uniform standards means that convictions (or exonerations) based on the interpretation of forensic data may be wrong. "The number of exonerations resulting from the analysis of DNA has grown across the country in recent years, uncovering a disturbing number of wrongful convictions -- some for capital crimes -- and exposing serious limitations in some of the forensic science approaches commonly used in the United States," the report states.

It cites figures provided by The Innocence Project that indicate that 223 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 and November 2008.

The report cites numerous other incidents in which ballistic evidence and fingerprint evidence have proven to be inaccurate. For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

The FBI's explanation: "Upon review it was determined that the FBI identification was based on an image of substandard quality, which was particularly problematic because of the remarkable number of points of similarity between Mr. Mayfield's prints and the print details in the images submitted to the FBI."

As with other areas of forensic science, the report observes that digital evidence examiners have no agreed-upon certification program or list of qualifications, that some agencies treat digital evidence gathering as an investigative rather than forensic activity, and that experience and education in the digital forensics varies widely.

The report also takes issue with what it terms "The CSI Effect," a reference the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs. It blames Hollywood's depiction of forensic science for suggesting "that convictions are quick and no mistakes are made."

Shows that portray forensic science thus have real-life consequences on jurors' willingness to accept forensic evidence during a trial, the report says.

How hard is it to wade through all that evidence? InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

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Kelly Jackson Higgins 2, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading