The only people who hate science more than Republicans

Our court system.  (Okay, and yes I’m being a little hard on Republicans because I like catchy titles).  Great summary of just how backwards our court system is on this from Radley Balko.  As his article title states, “Bad science puts innocent people in jail — and keeps them there.”  Sadly, our system values permanence so much more highly than actually getting it right.  Once a decision has been made– no matter how incredibly stupid and misguided the decision appears on later grounds– it is really, really hard to overturn.  And this is, sadly, often the case in cases that get science really, really wrong:

Since the onset in the 1990s of DNA testing — which, unlike most fields of forensics, was born in the scientific community — we’ve learned that many forensic specialities aren’t nearly as accurate as their practitioners have claimed. Studies from the National Academy of Sciences and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have concluded that there’s insufficient research to support the claims of the broad field of “pattern matching” forensics, which includes analyses of such things as hair fiber, bite marks, “tool marks” and tire tread.

These forensic specialties were never subjected to the rigors of scientific inquiry — double-blind testing, peer review — before they were accepted in courtrooms. Most are entirely subjective: An analyst will look at two marks or patterns and determine whether they’re a “match.” Most of these disciplines can’t even calculate a margin of error…

The scientific process is slow and deliberate: A study is published. Other studies verify, contradict or refine its results. There’s no set point at which science declares a theory proven or disproven. It’s about the process itself and the gradual accumulation of knowledge.

Courts work under a different set of rules. Statutes of limitations toll, procedural rules impose deadlines, and there’s an emphasis on finality. With science, revision and correction are part of the process — it’s okay to be wrong. The criminal justice system tends to operate as if its very legitimacy requires the certainty of a closed tomb… [emphasis mine].

At the trial level, juries hear far too much dubious science, whether it’s an unproven field like bite mark matching or blood splatter analysis, exaggerated claims in a field like hair fiber analysis, or analysts testifying outside their area of expertise. It’s difficult to say how many convictions have involved faulty or suspect forensics, but the FBI estimated in 2015 that its hair fiber analysts had testified in about 3,000 cases — and that’s merely one subspecialty of forensics, and only at the federal level. Extrapolating from the database of DNA exonerations, the Innocence Project estimates that bad forensics contributes to about 45 percent of wrongful convictions.

But flawed evidence presented at trial is only part of the problem. Even once a field of forensics or a particular expert has been discredited, the courts have made it extremely difficult for those convicted by bad science to get a new trial…

Our courts strive for finality because, the thinking goes, if verdicts can be overturned on a whim, the public will lose faith in the integrity of the system. And if the courts were to truly reckon with the mess wrought by bad forensics, we’d see a lot of overturned verdicts, certainly enough to sow doubt about the system.

But refusing to rectify unjust verdicts doesn’t preserve the integrity of our system, only the appearance of it. Meanwhile, innocent people remain behind bars.

It is encouraging that so many people are taking criminal justice reform seriously now.  But this is an under-appreciated aspect of criminal justice in desperate need of reform.  Let’s make sure we get it right, too.

 

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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