A Judge Asks: Is Forensic Science Really Science?

By Chris Gorski | February 25, 2019 5:15 pm
(Credit: Microgen/shutterstock)

(Credit: Microgen/shutterstock)

(Inside Science) — According to Senior U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, at the Southern District of New York, “Forensic science continues to be routinely admitted by the courts, both state and federal, even though considerable doubts have now been raised as to whether forensic science really is science at all, and whether it is reliable and valid.”

As part of the National Commission on Forensic Science, Rakoff contributed to a 2016 report noting some serious flaws in the way the justice system uses forensic science. He says that times have changed, and science has changed, but some judges aren’t changing as scientific understanding advances.

“DNA is, with very few exceptions, well-established as a science, but at the other extreme, things like bite mark analysis and hair testing analysis have been called severely into question and their error rates appear to be quite high,” said Rakoff.

“So, in 1993, the federal law was changed. And this was because the Supreme Court was concerned that too much so-called junk science was entering into the courtroom and that juries would not be able to evaluate it from their own experience,” Rakoff said.

When judges allow bad forensic science to enter the court, it can contribute to convicting the wrong person.

“There were forensic experts who testified and testified strongly that the defendant was guilty, as shown by science, and how can a jury disregard what science proves, and yet they were wrong. Flat wrong. So innocent people are being convicted,” said Rakoff.

Fingerprinting science has improved in the last 20 years, said Rakoff. But many other areas of forensic science, including bite mark analysis, tool marks, ballistics, and arson analysis are less accurate than many people realize.

“The notion that anything in science is so perfect that someone could testify that they were absolutely sure that it came from that person –that’s not science at all. That’s someone acting, in my view, in an unscientific way,” said Rakoff.

So, is it all a judge’s fault that imperfect science is getting into the courtroom?

“I think it’s fair to say that judges all the time confront areas that they’re not familiar with, in patent cases, in complicated international commercial disputes and so forth. But they educate themselves. They get up to speed. They are, as they say, quick studies. And so, I don’t think it’s that judges are intimidated by the fact that this is science,” said Rakoff.

Scientists might be able to help. As research reveals new information, they can help the courts evaluate it.

“Scientists are in a very good position to say, ‘This is good science. This is bad science. And this is unknown. We’re not sure.’ And I think the courts would be very receptive to more input from scientific organizations. But I think the main reason why judges are allowing in forensic science is that they are too much influenced by old precedents,” said Rakoff.

Old guidelines that judges use have the potential to change with their decisions, and Rakoff says more training could help judges and the justice system be more fair.

“I think both for the narrow reason that we don’t want to convict innocent people, and the broader reason, we want to have a system that we can have confidence in, it’s important to make a change here,” concluded Rakoff.

[This article originally appeared on InsideScience.org.]

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  • OWilson

    Forensic science, like all scientific diciplines can be bent, spun and twisted by zealous prosecutors and defense attorneys.

    They both bring in willing “experts” to make their case, and we finish up with totally contradictory testimony.

    Likewise, differing psychiatric evaluations offered in court can show an unrepentant lifelong criminal, or just a “victim” of society, who was never given a chance!

    That’s why the charismatic celebrity lawyers, who can best manipulate judges and juries make the big bucks!

    • jonathanpulliam

      “Justice is not perfect and is frequently never served!”

      Matter annihilation is never perfect either, as sub-atomic particles theoretically encounter their analogous anti-particles and are annihilated, there must be reconciled the quantum-scale spin counts of the constituent quarks and muons and it is my understanding that there is not a perfect symmetry on account of the subtly varying spin and no-spin conditions.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Desired crimes demand necessary criminals. Pick any “justice” system you like – and suffer it. Speed things along by denying, 1) presumption of innocence, 2) right to face one’s accuser, 3) right to be represented, 4) evidentiary admissibility standards, 5) right to remain silent, 6) statutes of limitations.

    J’Accuse…!” is enough for any Democrat Socialist.

  • jonathanpulliam

    In some states your spouse or your children cannot be compelled to testify against you in a court of law. But in those same states thanks to the rapid march of tech & big govt’s glacially belated response, the chip from the ODB II controller in your car’s engine controlls is allowed to “rat you out”, even though the durn thing belongs to YOU, and by rights ought to be protected per YOUR presumed right against SELF-incrimination. There is a famous punk rock song about a stable genius:

    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it

    Trump don’t like politics
    Trump don’t like like communists
    Trump don’t like “Sierra Mist”
    Trump don’t like anyone

    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it

    Trump don’t like Lezzy Whorrin’
    Trump thinks reading stuff is borin’
    Trump deplores the Manafart
    Trump abhors the “horrid” tart

    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it

    Trump don’t like his pals’ teen pooty
    Trump won’t be pee’d on by any cutie
    Trump, no Monroe Doctrinaire is he
    All Trump wants is teen girl pee.

    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it
    Trump’s against it

    – Apologies to Dee Dee Ramone

  • jonathanpulliam

    I was living in Brazil when Brazilian forensic experts found the remains of Dr. Mengele. The head forensics investigator noted that the “story” that the forensic evidence told in the psychopathic Nazi monster’s ostensible drowning at Praia de Bertioga had “a beginning, a middle, and an end”. This had to be, as the notorious Death Camp doctor had faked his own death on numerous previous occasions, so extra precautions were necessitated.

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