We all laugh at TV shows and movies which we think of as fantasy. The CSI shows, NCIS, JAG, among . We ..get a laugh out of them. But reality may make you cry.
Nathan J. Robinson, Forensic Pseudoscience: The Unheralded Crisis of Criminal Justice. Boston Review, November 16, 2015.
This past April, the FBI made an admission that was nothing short of catastrophic for the field of forensic science. In an unprecedented display of repentance, the Bureau announced that, for years, the hair analysis testimony it had used to investigate criminal suspects was severely and hopelessly flawed.
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In more than 95 percent of cases, analysts overstated their conclusions in a way that favored prosecutors. The false testimony occurred in hundreds of trials, including thirty-two death penalty cases. Not only that, but the FBI also acknowledged it had “trained hundreds of state hair examiners in annual two-week training courses,” implying that countless state convictions had also been procured using consistently defective techniques.
But questions of forensic science’s reliability go well beyond hair analysis, and the FBI’s blunders aren’t the only reason to wonder how often fantasy passes for science in courtrooms. Recent years have seen a wave of scandal, particularly in drug testing laboratories. In 2013 a Massachusetts drug lab technician pled guilty to falsifying tests affecting up to 40,000 convictions. Before that, at least nine other states had produced lab scandals. The crime lab in Detroit was so riddled with malpractice that in 2008 the city shut it down. During a 2014 trial in Delaware, a state trooper on the witness stand opened an evidence envelope from the drug lab supposedly containing sixty-four blue OxyContin pills, only to find thirteen pink blood-pressure pills. That embarrassing mishap led to a full investigation of the lab, which found evidence completely unsecured and subject to frequent tampering.