The end of junk science in court or just the beginning?

 

On July 13, Maddy deLone sent out an email alert from the Innocence Project about a bi-partisan Congressional initiative to end the use of junk-forensic science in American courtrooms. The legislation is designed to address the problems with the use of scientific data in court, as reported in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences (an non-government organization).

Unfortunately, after reading the Senate bill, I have concluded that—as well intentioned as it may be—the only thing the law will do is provide massive amounts of research money to forensic scientists who are already conducting ludicrous experiments, like the one who testified in Casey Anthony’s trial that he had sampled the air in the trunk of her car and found proof a dead body had been there at one time.

Sidebar: In my opinion at the time one of the most-compelling bits of testimony in the Anthony trial came from the manager of a lot where abandoned cars were towed. His credentials suggested to me that he was truly familiar with the smell of rotting human flesh. He had been sure that Casey’s car smelled as if a corpse had rotted in it. Since, once in the parking lot at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport I had passed a car trunk in which I felt certain somebody was rotting, I believed him. Then last week my own car began to smell “fishy,” so to speak, although not fishy fishy, but rotten-flesh fishy. First I searched for a plastic grocery bag that might have had chicken blood in it. Then I finally opened the trunk. A sealed, plastic bag of Trader Joe’s salad mix had apparently fallen out of a grocery bag stowed in it days earlier and liquefied. Just goes to prove that Jose Baez was right: trash stinks, flesh or not.

Casey Anthony’s high-profile trial was certainly not the first to bring junk-forensic scientists out of the woodwork.

Think back to the O. J. Simpson murder trial: remember an FBI hair-and-fiber expert who testified that a ski cap had been worn by an African American with chemically treated hair? That same FBI expert was also prevented from testifying that fibers found at the scene were from Simpson’s SUV, because he had, essentially, conspired with the prosecution to withhold the information during the disclosure phase of the case. Of course, it didn’t matter to Simpson in the end, but the National Academy of Science report since pointed out the extremely subjective nature of all hair-and-fiber analysis. Subjectivity is not scientific. And the new law does nothing to eliminate the use of subjectively analyzed evidence in court.

Then there was Scott Peterson, who may soon be getting a new trial: not only has he finally presented his appeal to the California Supreme Court, but that court has also recently overturned a capital murder verdict because of the way jurors were “qualified” for the jury panel. Peterson’s appeal includes complaints about “shaky” forensic-science testimony regarding the movements of dead bodies in water and the ability of cadaver dogs to identify specific people’s scents. What especially bothered me about the forensics in the trial, though, was testimony about such nebulous evidence as a computer search that turned up a click by the victim on an online ad for an umbrella stand (as if anybody could tell who clicked on it) and evidence of a rug scrunched up on the kitchen floor and the impression (that is, dent) in a bedspread shaped like a body.

High-Profile Forensic Science

The problem with the current use of forensic-science evidence in American courts isn’t that sound research is not being conducted—and that’s what the new law seeks to promote. The problem is the way prosecutors and judges rely on government-paid technicians to present evidence in court. In the Casey Anthony trial, for instance, the prosecution stumbled upon a researcher at Oak Ridge National Lab (a government lab), who has a quack theory about what can be gleaned from the misuse of highly sensitive chemical-analysis equipment. Knowing no better, the judge permitted the evidence to be presented in court. Fortunately for the defendant, her attorneys were smarter than the prosecutors and judge, and they made mincemeat out of the so-called forensic “scientist.”

The FBI lab’s “forensic scientists” testified in all three of the above cases, and in each case presented highly questionable evidence. In the Anthony trial, the FBI’s labs admittedly even mishandled a great deal of evidence, destroying it in the process.

If the Congress wants to improve the state of forensic science, they need to promote the use of independent, non-government labs for the collection and analysis of evidence. Unless government labs are forced to adhere to rigorous analytical procedures, the FBI and state labs will just keep on doing what they see as their duty—to prove each defendant is guilty.