Review: Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System

M. Chris Fabricant's new book details how flawed techniques have led to numerous wrongful convictions.


Few people are more qualified to write about wrongful convictions in the U.S. than M. Chris Fabricant, the director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project. His group has freed or exonerated more than 200 people since its birth in 1992.

The advent of DNA testing allowed the Innocence Project to show that several common forensic measures are far less reliable than expert witnesses want juries to believe. Fabricant's new book, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System, details at length how those flawed techniques have led to numerous wrongful convictions.

The book opens with the case of Keith Harward, a Navy sailor convicted of a 1982 murder and rape based on bite-mark analysis. A dentist testified at Harward's trial that it was a "practical impossibility" that someone else could have bitten the victim. Harward spent 33 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him.

Hokum techniques get accepted in the courtroom by having a veneer of scientific surety, but they lack empirical rigor. "It is subjective speculation masquerading as science, typically tilted in the government's favor against an indigent person of color," Fabricant writes.

And it's not just bite marks that have gotten convictions without scientific credibility. Fabricant's book shows how faulty ideas from blood spatter analysis to shaken baby syndrome were developed, infected court systems, and ruined a still-untold number of lives.