DNA evidence may not be perfect, but it has one truly critical application: Exonerating people who have been wrongly convicted. Since 1989, the Innocence Project says, DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of 349 people. Those people had served a total of 4,763 in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Forty-six percent of the time, their convictions were obtained, at least in part, because the prosecution presented forensic evidence that was misapplied.
In 2012, the Justice Department admitted that numerous, wrongly convicted people were sitting in prison despite the FBI knowing the evidence in their cases was flawed.
In 2015, the FBI was forced to admit that in at least 268 trials, their forensic hair examiners had demonstrably weighted their results toward the prosecution.
Last year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology urged courts to seriously reconsider the reliability of four commonly-used types of forensic evidence: Hair analysis, tread mark analysis, bite mark analysis and the tracing of bullets to specific guns using ballistics. The council found these techniques to be of highly questionable value.
With these scandals and a host of others involving overworked, untrustworthy or even lying lab technicians across the nation, the Obama Administration created a National Commission on Forensic Science to nail down what forensic techniques produce evidence reliable enough to use in criminal cases.
Police and investigators aren’t just pro-prosecution hacks. They’re supposed to provide the prosecution with a full, fair evaluation of the evidence available. Prosecutors have a legal and ethical duty to fairly present the evidence and to prosecute cases only when that evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The government is bound to act in the interest of justice.
With doubt in the air about the quality of some of our most common types of forensic evidence, how can the government pursue justice?
“Forensic science needs federal support for research and development just like any other discipline in science or engineering or medicine does,” noted the president of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists.
Not according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On Monday, he disbanded the National Commission on Forensic Science — just days before it was to present its final report.