Report on Forensic Science Challenges Accuracy of Evidence Analyses

04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Diann Rust-Tierney Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

If you think forensic science is always accurate and results in mistake-proof crime convictions as portrayed on "CSI" and other TV crime dramas, a new report by the National Research Council strongly indicates otherwise.

The report says that many forensic methods relied upon by police and prosecutors such as hair samples and blood spatters, are often mishandled by poorly trained technicians. The bottom line is that thousands of people convicted on the basis of such evidence may actually be as innocent as they have claimed. This is particularly true for many individuals who have been sentenced to death.

The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, presented a review of 137 trial transcripts to the academy for its study, in which convictions were overturned by DNA evidence. The review found that 60% of the cases included false or misleading statements regarding analyses of blood, hair, bite marks, and other materials.

The problem is compounded by an imbalance of resources between government prosecutors and indigent defense counsel, with the latter lacking the funds and the expertise to discredit poorly collected and analyzed forensic evidence.

Consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father of three from Corsicana, Texas, who was executed in February 2004 for murder by arson. Willingham and his three daughters were at home asleep on December 23, 1991, when his house went up in flames. He fled the house, asked neighbors to call the fire department, and attempted to re-enter the house to rescue his children. The children died, and he became a suspect in their deaths. Fire experts brought in to analyze the building reported evidence of arson. In December 2004, 11 months after Willingham's execution, a Chicago Tribune article reported on new scientific knowledge, which proves that testimony by arson experts at Willingham's trial was worthless. In fact, experts reviewing documents, trial testimony and video documentation of the fire scene suggested to the Chicago Tribune that the fire may have simply been accidental.

The National Research Council report recommends the establishment of a federal agency to finance research and training and promote universal standards in forensic science, and stricter regulation on crime laboratories. Death penalty abolitionists go a step further, noting that deeply flawed forensic science methods used in capital cases provides yet another reason for ending the death penalty.