Feb 05, 2009

Crime Labs Under the Microscope


Forensic specialists in crime labs match fingerprints, perform DNA analysis, link bullets to weapons, and perform other essential functions of scientific police work. Their accuracy and efficiency is vital to the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. If they screw up, innocent people are convicted and guilty people go free.

Sometime this month, the National Academy of Sciences will release a report blasting the quality of forensic testing in U.S. crime labs. Technicians, many among them employed by police departments, are often poorly-trained and exaggerate the accuracy of tests when defending their results in court. Moreover, the lack of standards for training technicians and carrying out forensic tests means that labs can differ greatly in quality. It's not a pretty picture, and clearly it conflicts with the glorious images of forensic scientists as shown in popular TV shows.

The forthcoming report's attack on the quality of crime labs is the Academy's broadest call yet for reform. A few years ago, a previous report knocked the pins out from under a testing technique known as "bullet lead test analysis". The FBI at one time claimed that each box of bullets had a unique chemical "signature" and that it could use these signatures to determine whether a particular bullet came from a particular box of bullets. Hundreds of people were convicted partly on the basis of such forensic evidence before the Academy demonstrated that the testing method was invalid.

Any reforms that the latest report calls for will undoubtedly be costly to implement and will not be accomplished overnight. As for the present, you can bet that the report will stimulate criminal defense attorneys to more vigorously attack the accuracy of forensic test results with this new ammunition.