February 7, 2009

Bang goes real forensics

I recently read of a jury demanding to know if a gun residue test had been carried out on the alleged perp. Upon hearing that no such test was done the jury was palpably appalled at such sloppy police work, such shoddy evidential procedures. The gross oversight would never happen on telly. The alleged crim walked free.

The populace at large, and therefore a court's pool of jurors, has been contaminiated by decades of police and legal procedure shows. Once upon a time, a less sophisticated audience fully understood that these programs were fiction. No one believed that Columbo, or Chips, or Cagney & Lacey, or Perry Mason, or Quincey, M.E types really did inhabit police stations, court rooms or coroner's offices, making the world a safer place by solving the most heinous and complex crimes in 41 minutes and 16 seconds.

Nor, once upon a time, would an audience have believed that all crimes could and are (bizarrely) solved by the soft and narrow glow of torch light (for mysterious reasons, the clever folk on CSI are not clever enough to use light switches or open curtains at crime scenes) .

It was once understood that this was all pretend, make believe.

Not so now.

isn't more convincing than it was back in the day, but somewhere and somehow, the viewing public have confused fictitious shows with the real world.

[A small tip, that persists in crime shows to this day, should be a continuing clue to the fiction (but clearly isn't) to viewers everywhere: almost all violent crimes on procedural telly shows are perpetrated by wealthy or middle class white people. Yes dear readers, think about that for half a second.]

If it wasn't bad enough that the CSI and Law & Order franchises had already made a mockery of the limitations of real policing and real law enforcement, things will get a whole lot uglier when a report by the US National Academy of Sciences is released (or if it's released).

The real world of forensics is even shoddier, shonkier, and sloppier than any law abiding citizen dare contemplate.

"Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.

The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court.

Legal experts expect that the report will give ammunition to defense lawyers seeking to discredit forensic procedures and expert witnesses in court. Lawyers could also use the findings in their attempts to overturn convictions based on spurious evidence. Judges are likely to use the findings to raise the bar for admissibility of certain types of forensic evidence and to rein in exaggerated expert testimony.

The report’s most controversial recommendation is the establishment of a federal agency to finance research and training and promote universal standards in forensic science, a discipline that spans anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and law. The report also calls for tougher regulation of crime laboratories.

In its current draft report, the National Academy wrote that the field suffered from a reliance on outmoded and untested theories by analysts who often have no background in science, statistics or other empirical disciplines.

One person who has reviewed the draft and who asked not to be identified because of promises to keep the contents confidential said: “I’m sure that every defense attorney in the country is waiting for this report to come out. There are going to be challenges to fingerprints and firearms evidence and the general lack of empirical grounding. It’s going to be big.”

Science found wanting in nation's crime labs


  1. Hi Caz
    I stopped watching CSI ages ago, it was just too silly.
    I didn't mind the Murder programme from the US which was on late at night. It was interesting, but I was amazed at the sloppiness of the investigations with many police and others traipsing through crime scenes... this is an actual true crime programme like RPA is a true hospital programme. The camera crew are with the detectives from their first contact with the corpse. It's very interesting. Of course a lot of the gory bits and dead people are pixellated. Wimps.

    I wanted to be a policewoman when I left school, I was very interested in forensics (years of Quincy ME, and lots of true crime books...).

    I'm sure in Australia forensics and police investigations are a lot more restricted and rigourous.

    Hmmm. And then there's Lindy Chamberlain.

    Have you seen the "Who killed Bogle and Chandler?"?

  2. Some of episodes that recreate & retell the story of real crimes, interviewing the investigators, etc, beggar belief as the excruciating ineptitude is slowly unveiled Kae.

    Of course, it's never presented like that, the producers don't want to insult people, but sheesh, many a time I'm left shaking my head in disbelief.

    If there are gross flaws in forensics in the US Kae, there would be the very same, and possibly worse, in Oz. No question about that, we don't have anything better and don't do anything better than the US.

    As for police competence: the case of Victorian toddler Jayden (the Moe case), is a shameful example, and the man responsible for that little boy's death will never ever go to jail. The police incompetence and fumbling from beginning to end ensured that he walked free and will stay free.

    The Chamberlain case was, of course, classic and appalling. One day baby blood spatters, next day car insulation spray. The worst part was how many people wanted to and did believe that it was blood. And what the hell sort of test reads car sealant as blood? Testing for blood is pretty straight forward, it's not a confusing method or science.

  3. I don't know what to make of this study. If it's anything like the science behind globalwarming then we're all in big doodoo.

  4. The US one I watched was factual and filmed as it happened. No recreations.

    Forensics in Aus is more advanced than in the US, as far as there being special forensic people who are not police who do the investigation.