Book Reviews

Autopsy of a Crime Lab

The book argues that judges should take their responsibility as gatekeepers of scientific and technical evidence more seriously.

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"Real CSI is not like what you see on TV," writes Duke law professor Brandon Garrett in Autopsy of a Crime Lab. That's an understatement.

Some forensic specialties—including bite mark, blood spatter, hair, fiber, and footprint analysis—are deeply dubious. Even such venerable techniques as latent fingerprint and ballistic comparisons are not as well-grounded as commonly thought. When you add incompetence, corruption, cognitive biases, and pseudoscientific certainty to the mix, innocent people can end up spending years or decades in prison while the actual perpetrators remain free to continue their criminal careers.

Garrett began studying the science behind commonly used forensic tools after he discovered that they often figured prominently in the wrongful convictions of people who were ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence. Based on testimony from analysts who exuded unjustified confidence in techniques that had never been properly validated, jurors erroneously convicted defendants of robbery, rape, and murder.

Judges likewise credulously accepted the witnesses' assurances that they knew what they were talking about. Even after a bombshell 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that much of the forensic evidence used in criminal trials lacked "meaningful scientific validation," judges generally carried on as before, reflexively admitting questionable testimony on the premise that courts would not have done so in the past without good reason. Autopsy of a Crime Lab argues that judges should take their responsibility as gatekeepers of scientific and technical evidence more seriously.

Garrett also recommends stricter regulation of crime labs, better supervision of evidence collection, systematic disclosure of error rates, regular assessment of analysts' proficiency, and making it standard practice to withhold case information that may bias those analysts' conclusions. "Slowly but surely," he hopes, "a new culture of science and statistics is replacing the myth of infallible forensics."

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  1. I read this same basic article I don’t know how many years ago in the old OMNI magazine. The author argued that making judges who don’t know the first damn thing about science the gatekeepers for who is and who is not an “expert witness” meant that judges were just going to throw up their hands and admit any sciency-sounding crackpot as an expert witness and he specifically went after “forensic scientists” as the worst of the crackpots.

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  4. The book argues that judges should take their responsibility as gatekeepers of scientific and technical evidence more seriously.

    That’s what Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are for.

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  5. There are enough mistakes in forensic uses of genuine sciences that having to worry about bogus forensic sciences is excessive. In both cases there should be accountability for ‘scientists’ and ‘law enforcers’ who are too casual about fakesolving crimes.

  6. So when he does those “true crime” documentaries, Bill Kurtis is into fake news too?

  7. We clearly do not want to solve this problem. This one is easy.

    Simply segregating law enforcement from the laboratory is an easy first step. Then laboratory customers, meaning police departments, attorneys general, The Department of Justice, etc, can set objective standards and measure performance using known samples sent in as challenges.

    This would make step two simple. Because right now judges are ill-equipped to make any judgment as to whether scientific evidence is valid. They basically seem to go off of which attorney their buddies with and which expert looks the best on the stand. As a rule, judges are scientifically illiterate. But removing the hands of the state from preparing evidence and from expert testimony would allow objective standards to grow organically. So if you cannot determine a known bite mark from a set of controls, then we know that you cannot testify as to the validity of bitemark evidence. The same goes for any new technique. If you claim that a curly hair you found in a watch cap proves this defendant did it, you should be able to conclusively match a test subject from a suite of unrelated samples.

    1. The fact that we have not even taken baby steps along this path is all you need to know. They would much rather have the ability to ensure that the “right guy” goes to jail regardless of the evidence.

      None of this stuff is new. Radley Balko was talking about it more than a decade ago. A decade and a half before that the same discussion came up during the OJ Simpson trial.

      This is exactly the kind of thing that the private sector excels at. Private crime scene processing labs would be much better positioned to use state of the art techniques and training across the board without bias. Federal and state licensing requirements that include objective testing would ensure that local police departments cannot maintain the status quo by simply farming out their forensics to the mayor’s brother-in-law.

      This would allow scientific standards such as blinding of the technicians to take hold in the industry.

      Long story short, don’t hold your breath.

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