Forensic Science Reform at ‘Crossroads’

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Forensic investigators at a UK crime scene. Photo by Andrew Mason via Flickr

Recent efforts to reform the use of forensic science in the courtroom don’t go far enough to meet widespread criticisms of its validity and reliability, according to a University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School study.

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UCLA Law Professor Jennifer L. Mnookin examined the state of forensic science reform. Photo courtesy UCLA

In the last two decades, often-used forms of pattern evidence, such as fingerprint, tool mark, and bite mark identification, have faced significant criticism, wrote study author Jennifer L. Mnookin, a law professor at UCLA, in a research paper posted in Daedalus, a journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Department of Justice’s decision in April 2017 not to renew the charter of  the National Commission on Forensic Science reduces the likelihood of real reform, which Mnookin said puts forensic science  at a “crossroads.”

“Our best hope for sustained, substantial changes necessary for improving forensic science evidence within our system of justice requires the creation of another national commission or other institutional body, made up of both research scientists and other institutional stakeholders,” she wrote.

Mnookin uses a mistaken bite mark identification case to further her point.

Alfred Swinton, was released from prison after serving 18 years of a 60-year  sentence for murder, after an expert admitted ruled the bite mark identification evidence used to convict him no longer seemed persuasive or valid.

The bite mark expert “no longer believed with reasonable medical certainty–or with any degree of certainty –that the marks on [the victim] were created by Mr. Swinton’s teeth, because of the recent developments in the scientific understanding of bite-mark analysis,” odontologist Constantine Karazulas told the Hartford Courant, as quoted by Mnookin.

Is Forensic Science ‘Junk Science’?

Karazulas even called his earlier testimony “junk science” and said he “no longer believes that Mr. Swinton’s detention was uniquely capable of producing the bite marks I observed.”

Mnookin suggested the case indicated a potential sea change for the use of bite mark evidence,  and noted there is a growing consensus among judges that the forensic science community should scale back exaggerated and overconfident assertions of knowledge and authority by forensic scientists.

Mnookin concluded that future reform required an institutional structure adversarial advocates, and practitioners themselves, staffed by accomplished research scientists to pave new ways for credible forensic science evidence to be used in courtrooms.

“We are simply not likely to see continued forward motion unless there is some institutional body to prompt reform, a commission or working group with both convening power and a claim to legitimacy, in which academic researchers and forensic science stakeholders can jointly assess the state of forensic science and continue to push for, and argue about, improvements,” she wrote.

If it can happen, she said, the future of forensic science will almost certainly be far brighter, and the substance of what is used in investigations and offered in courtrooms throughout our nation will be more reliable, more trustworthy, and more scientifically valid.

Additional reading: “Science Takes a Hit at the Department of Justice,” by Jeff Butts, TCR Dec 2018.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here

Megan Hadley is a senior staff writer at The Crime Report. Comments welcome.