As Season 2 of the popular Netflix series “Making a Murderer” played out this fall, the public discussion over wrongful convictions and calls to reform the use of flawed forensic science in America’s courtrooms was getting louder both in St. Louis and nationally.
The National Registry of Exonerations indicates that more than 2,000 innocent people have been exonerated since 1989 from wrongful convictions, and of those whom DNA testing has freed, a shocking 24 percent had trials that featured mistaken, exaggerated or outright false testimony from purported forensic scientists.
This year, the state of Missouri was ordered to pay nearly $14 million to the relatives of a man wrongly convicted of a 1982 murder in St. Louis that DNA evidence later exonerated. And on Dec. 14, the federal government awarded the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office and the Midwest Innocence Project a $250,000 grant to establish a conviction integrity unit that will review cases where the wrong person may be in prison.
Last month, the national discussion on forensic science reform came to St. Louis, and the message is that serious concerns about the reliability of forensic science and analysis must be addressed locally and nationally in order to preserve the integrity of our judicial system. Attorneys Jerome Buting and Dean Strang — known for their defense work in the homicide case featured in the series “Making a Murderer” — were among a group of nationally recognized experts who addressed a symposium sponsored by the Center For Integrity in Forensic Science and hosted by Washington University School of Law titled “Where’s the Science in Forensic Science?”
Buting and Strang said the advent of DNA exonerations has highlighted the flaws in much of the forensic evidence used in American criminal courts today, and that law schools and graduate STEM programs need to work together to improve the reliability of forensic science and scientists.
Criminal justice experts and laypeople alike expect that science will provide objective answers to previously vexing or insoluble questions of guilt and innocence in criminal trials. To meet that expectation, scientific evidence must bear the hallmarks of real science, including openness, objectivity and rigorous testing and validation. Yet, as the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2009, almost none of the individualized forensic sciences meet these standards.
Moreover, across the United States, forensic
crime laboratories invariably remain connected to law enforcement agencies, not independent scientific facilities. These laboratories almost never operate with fully scientific objectivity, but instead start with the subjective biases of the criminal investigators who fund and supervise them. Testing almost always starts with analysts being given the name of the suspect and being asked not for objective testing results, not even to try to rule out the suspect, but instead to link the suspect and the sample tested to the crime.
There are few efforts by criminal justice system participants to address the problems of skewed forensic science and its structural flaws. Instead, the legal profession has relied on academic scientists, law professors and influential organizations of scientists like the National Academy of Sciences, to confront the problem. As important as the efforts of the scientific community are, the practicing legal community must begin to take an active role — in collaboration with scientists in established scientific disciplines — in implementing reforms in forensic sciences, strengthening the independence, objectivity and reliability of crime laboratories, and excluding unreliable techniques and testimony from the courtroom.
This nation can and must do better. True scientists understand this.
James Carmody is principal at Carmody MacDonald P.C. and a member of the Center for Integrity of Forensic Sciences National Advisory Board.