Friday, April 24, 2015

A brief history of forensics

Over the weekend, Hsu broke the story that Justice Department officials now concede that “an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

This is far from the first such story. It isn’t even the first such story from the FBI’s crime lab, long considered one of the most elite labs in the world. In fact,  over the last several years there seems to be a new crime lab in crisis about once a month. A big part of the problem is misplaced incentives. A couple years ago I reported on a study which found that in many states, crime lab analysts are actually paid per conviction. And few years before that study came out, one of its authors — Roger Kopple of Fairleigh Dickinson University — and I wrote a piece about how we could institute some meaningful reforms to get those incentives pointing in the right direction.

But Hsu’s story seems like a good opportunity to post a bit of a history of forensics that I wrote a few months ago. This was initially part of my four-part series on the use of bite mark evidence in the courts. We cut it because the series was already pretty long. But I think it provides some useful context for these alarming stories we’re seeing today.


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