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Legal Experts Question Reliability of Forensic Evidence

July 31, 2017

Florida prosecutors often build their cases around forensic evidence like fingerprints, footprints and ballistics, but skeptics have begun questioning the presumed infallibility of this type of evidence. A report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued during the Obama administration launched criticism of forensic methods enshrined in crime fiction and television shows as 100 percent accurate. The council declared that only multiple tests by independent entities could assure the scientific validity of forensic evidence.

The dean of a law school in a presentation to a conference of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit emphasized that judges should not assume that forensic evidence is completely reliable. She noted that forensic science mistakes represented the second most common source of DNA exoneration for wrongfully convicted people. She urged judges to consider carefully the potential inaccuracy of forensic evidence before allowing its admission in court.

Although law enforcement agencies decry the criticism of forensics, one judge at the conference said that he had already begun to question the alleged absolute accuracy of forensic evidence after reading an article about it. Prior to that, he had thought of forensic methods as completely reliable, but now he harbors doubts.

Defense attorneys as well should not allow forensic evidence to go unquestioned now that the scientific rigor of the methods have been questioned. A person in need of a criminal defense might want an attorney to scrutinize evidence and cast doubt upon interpretations that could point to guilt. During a plea negotiation, an attorney could pressure the prosecutor to reduce or drop charges when they are supported by small samples of trace materials. At a trial, an attorney might inform the jury about the possible failings of forensic science in order to obtain an acquittal.