CSI Dilemma: Crime Labs Team With Prosecutors to Severely Tilt Playing Field

Forensic science system must be reformed

Los Angeles (December 7, 2007) – A new report shines a light on how difficult it is for poor defendants to get a fair trial in today's CSI world. Public defenders without forensic training are usually no match for crime labs that are funded by law enforcement agencies and intent on helping prosecutors secure convictions.

The Reason Foundation study highlights several cases where flawed lab work led to wrongful convictions, undermining the integrity of the justice system and the fundamental right to a fair trial. The study calls for several reforms, including:

  • Strategic Redundancy. A jurisdiction should contain several competing forensic labs. Sometimes evidence should be chosen at random for multiple testing. No lab would know when a given piece of evidence was being examined by another lab, so it would have a greater incentive to find the truth and apply rigorous scientific standards. More fundamentally, redundant testing increases the chance that honest errors would be caught and the underlying problems fixed.
  • Evidence Control Officer. The system should have an impartial authority, not connected to any law enforcement agency or any particular lab, who manages the random selection of labs and protects the anonymity of the cases and samples being tested.
  • Statistical Review. Labs should be subject to statistical comparison. Any lab with a statistically unusual profile should be examined to fix the problem or expose a best practice others should imitate.
  • Vouchers for Defendants. Most crime lab employees view themselves as working for the police or prosecution, which introduces bias. In cases where forensic evidence is used, all defendants should have access to independent forensic experts.

"The failure of our forensic science system often results in innocent people going to jail and guilty people staying on the streets to commit more crimes," said Professor Roger Koppl, author of the study and director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "The big problem is not the few bad forensic scientists out there, but the improper organization of forensic science itself. We can, and must, protect our constitutional right to a fair trial by instituting a system of checks and balances in forensic science."

Despite the seemingly high costs of providing increased forensic expertise in applicable cases, the study finds the practice is likely to save taxpayers money because of the innocent citizens it keeps out of jail and the cases it prevents from even going to trial.

Full Report Online

The full report, CSI for Real: How to Improve Forensics Science, is available online at: http://reason.org/ps364_forensics.pdf.

About Reason

Reason Foundation is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to advancing free minds and free markets. Reason produces respected public policy research on a variety of issues and publishes the critically acclaimed monthly magazine, Reason. Reason Foundation also produces Reason.tv, featuring short documentaries hosted by Drew Carey. For more information, please visit www.reason.org.

Contacts

Chris Mitchell, Director of Communications, Reason Foundation, (310) 367-6109




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