Reforming Forensics


Fairleigh Dickinson Professor Roger Koppl argues for a significant overhaul of forensics in the U.S. in the current issue of Forbes. Forbes editor William Baldwin was alarmed enough at Koppl's examples of forensics malfeasance to write a sharply-worded editorial of his own.

Koppl wrote a study on forensics reform for the Reason Foundation, and wrote a summary of the study for the November issue of reason. Koppl and I have also co-written an article touching on similar themes that will appear in an upcoming issue of Engage, a journal published by the Federalist Society.

Koppl's work deserves more attention. Controlled studies have shown that the bias forensic experts absorb even by such seemingly innocuous interactions as speaking with police and prosecutors before running tests can have a disturbingly significant impact on their results. This bias exists even in well-intentioned, professional scientists. That's bias that's independent of the more egregious examples such as Dr. Hayne in Mississippi, or cases where prosecutors put ethically dubious pressure on forensics experts to tailor their findings to help the prosecution's case.

Koppl's proposals employ competition, proper incentives, and strategic manipulation of information (that is, separating information about the crime from the analysis of the evidence) to produce more accurate results—results less likely to be influenced by unintended bias, and that also would also go a long way toward uncovering the more egregious offenders. Koppl estimates that the cost of implementing his ideas would be less than the cost of just a couple wrongful convictions.

The most urgent of Koppl's reforms is the idea of giving forensic vouchers to indigent defendants. We need a Gideon v. Wainwright for forensics. Until defendants are given access to their own experts, far too many criminal cases will feature testimony only from state forensic scientists, and all the problems that come with that. When only one guy with letters after his name is testifying, jurors are going to tend to put quite a bit of faith in what he says. We've seen this even when what the expert is saying is absurd, and scoffed at by just about everyone else in the scientific community. When poor defendants aren't given access to their own experts, then, it calls into question whether we really have an adversarial criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, too many people think all of the country's forensic labs work like the ones they see on CSI. I'm not sure it's enough to merely ask that judges take a more aggressive approach to weeding out the frauds. First, judges can be duped, too. Second, even competent, professional forensic scientists can make mistakes. The changes need to be more radical. Another of Koppl's suggested reforms essentially applies the idea of peer review to the criminal forensics process. That would go a long way toward cutting down on mistakes, intentional and otherwise.