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Should Judges Be More Skeptical of Forensics?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 21, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"I'm free," Anthony Wright proclaimed. "I thank God for science."

Wright was exonerated of murder last year after 25 years in prison. He was the 344th person in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

This month, judges at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Judicial Council learned more about how faulty forensic evidence leads to exonerations. Legal experts told them to be skeptical of methods that don't pass scientific muster.

Forensic Science in Criminal Courts

Citing a report last year by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Los Angeles Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Friedman told the judges that the report was directed at them.

"It was not intended to tell the people in this room how to decide cases, but to discuss and explain the intersection of scientific validity and legal reliability," she said.

The report challenged decades of forensic practices, such a fingerprint identification, bite marks, ballistics, hair, and footprint analysis.

"Forensic examiners shouldn't be able to come into court and make claims of 100 percent certainty, or testify that they've never made a mistake or that the error rate for the discipline is zero," Friedman said.

Judges and Defense Counsel

Judge Alex Kozinski said he accepted the idea that certain forensic methods were virtually infallible until he read an article in Science magazine made him question his long-held beliefs.

"Bite marks turn out to be completely useless, bullet fragments tend to be highly unreliable," he said. "Fingerprints, which I thought were the standard of validity, turn out to have a significant error rate when you test them against unknown samples."

He said defense lawyers need to raise their issues about forensic evidence more often in court, Courthouse News reported.

"Many defense lawyers, like the rest of us, grew up with fingerprints, bite marks and footprint evidence and simply accept it as being inherently valid and not worth challenging," he said. "And if judges don't have the issue presented, it's difficult for a judge."

Friedman said that scrutinizing forensic testimony would "go a long way in preventing wrongful convictions and ensure the integrity of the evidence being admitted."

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