How Experts’ False Claims Yield Wrongful Convictions

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A prominent factor in exonerations  is misleading forensic evidence. A close look at such cases shows how experts in fields like hair analysis, bite marks and DNA analysis used exaggerated statistical claims to bolster unscientific assertions, the New York Times reports. 

Once experts meet the qualifications to take the stand in a courtroom, there are few limits on the words that come out of their mouths. “[Experts] can say whatever they want,” said Simon Cole, director of the National Registry of Exonerations, and a professor of Criminology, Law and Society at University of California Irvine.

The Registry reported earlier this month that 151 people were exonerated during 2018, representing 1,639 years spent behind bars for wrongful convictions.

That includes offering up invented odds like “one in a million” or “1 in 129,600,” the Registry says.

“A lot of the problem with forensic testimony is that the diagnosticity is overstated,” said Michigan State University law Prof. Barbara O’Brien, author of the report.

A hair sample at the crime scene that resembles a suspect’s hair “gets dressed up with this scientific certainty that isn’t justified,” she said. The Times examines three examples from the study’s case files.

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