What’s Wrong with the Crime Labs?

Across the country, DNA testing is being used to free the wrongfully convicted and, in its wake, reveal the errors and misconduct within our criminal justice system. One of the biggest errors has to do with procedures in the crime labs. In fact, according to The Innocence Project, improper forensic science has been a part of about half of the wrongful convictions exposed by DNA testing.

So what’s happening in the crime labs? Sadly, it looks like they are riddled by biases caused by procedures that are not conducive to serving justice.

To start with state labs are often the only labs to test crime scene evidence.  This means that individual crime lab workers employed by state or local governments are protected by qualified immunity making them less personally accountable for improper conduct. What’s more, since state labs are more protected, they do not have to be so cautious in saving evidence. In fact, state labs often destroy biological evidence after a defendant has exhausted his or her appeals, as saving evidence is costly and is only useful in possibly revealing past mistakes. Furthermore, when labs are being run by the state, there is also a sense of confusion in regards to whether the crime lab workers are being employed to conduct sound analysis, or to help win convictions.

Of course, this confusion isn’t necessarily intentional. But what else do you think can happen when forensic experts who must testify in court as objective analysts must also report directly to prosecutors or police agencies? What’s more, biases can also occur in which tests to run, how to record test results and how to interpret test results.  Furthermore, many of these labs do not incorporate even basic scientific principles such as double-blind testing and peer review.

In an effort to save time, costs and “find” the perpetrator, perhaps these crime labs are losing sight of who they are really supposed to look after. Scandals have been reported in state crime labs including California, Mississippi, and West Virginia… how many more scandals must break loose before new methods and systems of oversight take place?

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