Study draws attention to potential downfalls of forensic evidence

Research reveals many forensic techniques lack scientific validation, which may be one reason that forensic evidence issues cause many wrongful convictions.

In recent years, research has pointed to issues with many forms of evidence that are commonly used to support criminal charges, from direct confessions to eyewitness testimony. To many people, forensic evidence may now seem like one of the few truly objective, reliable forms of evidence. However, a report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology shows that there can still be serious concerns when this evidence is used to support felony or misdemeanor criminal charges.

Unproven techniques

The report reviews a number of forensic techniques that are commonly utilized and widely viewed as credible. These include comparisons of bite marks, firearm tool marks, shoe prints, hair, DNA and fingerprints. Worrisomely, the report states that the validity of many of these techniques has never been established through scientific research or accuracy testing. The reliability of each technique can be summarized as follows:

· DNA and fingerprint analysis are the only reviewed techniques that have been adequately researched and can be considered scientifically valid.

· Despite this, fingerprint analysis has its limitations. The report notes that only two reliable studies have focused on this technique, and false positives were apparent in both.

· Analyses of hair, shoe prints, firearm tool marks and bite marks do not meet the scientific standards laid out in the report.

Sadly, evidence produced by these techniques may frequently be used to bolster serious charges, such as sexual assault or rape. Furthermore, these forensic methods may be presented as highly accurate during trial. Without proper context, juries may be more likely to convict innocent people based on these questionable techniques.

Unreliable evidence

Issues with forensic evidence - which may include deliberate misconduct on the part of analysts, in addition to flawed techniques and improper presentation during trial - are a common cause of wrongful convictions. According to the Innocence Project, in the U.S., about half of all innocent individuals who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were initially convicted on the basis of forensic evidence.

Here in North Carolina, the proportion of exonerated individuals who were convicted at least in part due to faulty forensic evidence is lower. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, false or misleading forensic evidence has been a factor in 10 of the 60 exonerations that have occurred. However, a much higher rate of uncaught wrongful convictions might be attributable to issues with this type of evidence.

During any criminal case, it is imperative that the potential shortcomings of forensic techniques and evidence be critically evaluated. This is one reason that anyone facing criminal charges can benefit from consulting with an attorney. An attorney may be able to assess questionable evidence, identify other weaknesses in a case and develop an appropriate strategy for challenging the charges.