Forensics laboratories have featured in hit TV shows and attained a level of mainstream familiarity and fame that few other sciences can claim. But a new investigation, which appears as the cover story of the February 26 edition of The Nation, finds that much of forensics may not be scientific at all.
“A lot of forensic science is completely valid,” said co-author Meehan Crist, “things like forensic chemistry, things like DNA analysis.”
But Crist says many of the pattern-matching disciplines – from fingerprints, to bullets or tool marks – are highly subjective and not supported by scientific evidence.
Still, this kind of evidence continues to show up in trials, with the potential to determine the courses of people’s lives. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that faulty forensics is involved in 24 to 34 percent of wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project puts the number closer to half.
At the heart of the problem, says Crist, is a mismatch between two systems of knowledge – one legal, and one scientific.