Junk Science on TV and in the Criminal System

If you watch the legal dramas on television, then it’s likely you’ve seen your favorite legal team win again and again with evidence that involved forensic science. Forensic scientists take the evidence gathered at a crime scene by investigators and proceed with a chemical and physical analysis of that evidence. To determine the class and individual characteristics of the evidence, scientists use scientific and mathematical principles and complex instruments. Scientists then often provide scientific facts (or what is perceived to be) during the testimony of a civil or criminal case.

The Validity and Reliability of Forensic Science

Recently the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) conducted a study on forensic methods like firearms identification, microscopic hair comparison, bite mark analysis and footwear analysis. The report published as a result of the study found that these types of forensic methods don’t have sufficient scientific validation. In other words, those methods have not proven to be reliable forms of legal evidence or proof in a case.

This report came as a wake-up call to those in the legal community who are concerned with the criminal justice system’s integrity. The report emphasized the growing evidence that specific kinds of forensic feature comparison methods aren’t necessarily as reliable as they were thought to be.

The Innocence Project and the FBI conducted a joint study reviewing decades of testimony in criminal cases by hair examiners. The study found that in 95 percent of the cases there were flaws in the testimony. DNA testing proved that bite-mark evidence which led to convictions in many felony cases was incorrect. The study further found that faulty forensic evidence was discovered in about half of the cases that utilized DNA testing after conviction and resulted in exoneration.

The Ramifications of the PCAST Report

The results of this study should impact how forensic practitioners explain the limits of such evidence to judges and to jurors. It also helps those practitioners understand the limits of forensic science. To truly have validity, forensic disciplines must seek out empirical studies that evaluate accuracy and error rates in conditions that are similar to those in the real world. Moreover, a skilled criminal defense lawyer can fight hard to get junk science excluded or show the jury its flaws and weaknesses.


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