New Report Calls for Forensic Science Overhaul

Yesterday the National Academy of Sciences issued a lengthy report, two years in the making,on the current state of forensic science. It should not come as a surprise, that they found “serious problems” with the field. The report, according to NPR’s Morning Edition, which did a segment on it today, “cites key deficiencies — such as the lack of mandatory certification

programs for forensic scientists and the lack of standards for

analyzing and presenting evidence. The study calls for new science

research and major reforms to fix the fragmented, decentralized system.” Not to mention that up to 80% of forensic laboratories are overworked and understaffed, and the “CSI Effect” means juries expect DNA and when they don’t get it, they don’t convict. It all adds up to the recommendation by the NAS that forensic science ought to undergo a serious overhaul.

Nothing brings the point home like Radley Balko’s latest article in Reason Magazine, part of an ongoing series looking at Missippippi medical examiner Michael Hayne and how his less-than-stellar practice has led to innocent people on death row. One of them might be Jimmie Duncan, convicted of murdering 23-month-old Hayley Oliveaux in 1993 in part because of the presence of bite mark evidence. But as the video linked in the piece indicates, that evidence – conjured up by one Michael West – is beyond suspect:

The full 24-minute video opens with Michael West's initial
examination of Haley Oliveaux's body on the night of December 18, 1993.
He notes several injuries, but at no time does he mention the presence
of possible bite marks on Oliveaux’s right cheek. The video itself
shows no sign of bite marks, scrapes, or abrasions on the cheek.

the 4:55 mark, there's a cut in the original video, representing the
break between West's initial exam on December 18, and a follow-up
bite-mark analysis on December 19. After the break, West stands over
Oliveaux's body, which now contains a striking red abrasion on her
right cheek—an abrasion that wasn't there before. West then takes the
plaster cast of Jimmie Duncan's teeth and pushes it into the scrape on
Oliveaux's jaw. Over the next few minutes he jams, drags, and scrapes
the dental mold across Oliveaux’s cheek 17 times. For the entire
24-minute video, West uses Duncan's teeth mold on Oliveaux's skin more
than 50 times….

…When asked how abrasions on Oliveaux's cheek not present when the video
begins could later appear, [Ventura County Deputy Medical Examiner Michael] Bowers answered, "Because Dr. West created
them. It was intentional. He's creating artificial abrasions in that
video, and he's tampering with the evidence. It's criminal, regardless
of what excuse he may come up with about his methods." Bowers added,
"You never jam a plaster cast into a possible bite mark like that. It
distorts the evidence. You take a photograph, or if there are
indentations, you take an impression. But you don't jam plaster teeth
into them." After viewing the video, Bowers submitted an affidavit for
Jimmie Duncan's defense.

As shocking as that story is, I also understand why change may not be as forthcoming as the NAS hopes it will be. Creating new standards for established techniques, or tossing them out altogether, will be a costly, laborious, combative practice, one requiring a great deal of discussion and committees and hand-wringing. Forensic science funding has been difficult to obtain in the best of times, and these times are anything but rosy. Bad apples also don’t mean the techniques themselves aren’t useful, and DNA evidence is not always practical and necessary in every criminal case. And as I’ve said here any number of times, forensic science has moved more in the direction of repetitive specialization and away from the larger picture – which is problematic because looking for the larger story often yields the real one, while the telling detail means the forest gets lost for the saplings.

The report is the #1 topic of discussion at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ annual meeting taking place in Denver this week, but I, like many others, hope some concrete ideas on how to tackle the issues highlighted by the NAS emerge from those who work in the field, on the ground level and further up the ladder.