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A Special Report: Science or fiction? Forensic Evidence on Trial

St. Louis County Police officer Stephen Kramer shoots into a water tank to examine the markings the barrel of an Intratec9 handgun leaves on spent bullets. Photo by Karen Elshout

St. Louis County Police officer Stephen Kramer shoots into a water tank to examine the markings the barrel of an Intratec9 handgun leaves on spent bullets. Photo by Karen Elshout

“Many long-held beliefs about arson have been proven untrue.”

“Fingerprint evidence can be unreliable.”

“Some lab technicians who conduct tests aren’t well-trained.”

Those sentiments come not from a desperate defense attorney but are the thrust of a report by the estimable National Academy of Sciences.

The academy rocked the criminal justice system earlier this year with its critique of the science behind forensic evidence used in American courtrooms.

The conclusion: The science prosecutors rely on is often unproven, potentially unreliable and possibly biased.

Too often, the researchers said, undertrained technicians use uncertified labs to draw unsupported conclusions when testifying about fingerprints, ballistics and arson.

Missouri Lawyers Weekly this week and next will examine questions about physical evidence commonly admitted in criminal and civil trials. We will explain why the science is controversial, what signs should alert prosecutors and defense attorneys to unreliable evidence and how they can attack that science and evidence in court. Our coverage begins on page 10.

Dec. 14, 2009

Slow burn

It has taken 20 years for fire investigators to develop methods based on science. But are they still relying too much on gut instinct?

Arson: Charting the weathering

Arson: Helpful links

Arson: Questions to ask

Bulletproof?

Microscopic analysis of small grooves can send someone to prison, but the science behind ballistics remains subjective


Ballistics glossary: Know the gun lingo

Ballistics evidence: Helpful links

Ballistics: Anarchists and the crime lab

Ballistics: On the firing range

Ballistics: Questions to ask

Ballistics: Beyond the bullet – trajectory and GSR

Dec. 21, 2009

False impressions

The myth of total reliability  feeds on itself: Because fingerprints have, for a century, convicted people, then fingerprints must be accurate because they have convicted people.

Think you have the expert touch? Try your hand at our fingerprint quiz.

Fingerprints: Questions to ask

Fingerprints: Level Three called ‘generally a fraud’

Fingerprints: Bias may lurk in labs’ ties to police agencies

Fingerprints: Tips

Fingerprints: The World’s Fair started things

Countering DNA

Legal arguments have shifted from attacking the science behind a DNA profile to other questions, from what conclusions can be drawn from a person’s DNA at the scene to whether the evidence was properly handled.

DNA: Questions to ask

DNA: New methods look deeper into DNA

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