KABOOM! Head Exploded, Can’t Write, Don’t Need To: The FBI Forensic Scandal

Happy New Year!

This is res ipsa loquitur: “the thing speaks for itself.” If I have to explain what’s unethical about this and why, you are beyond my help.

From the Washington Post:

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in 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.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions…

Read the rest here.

23 thoughts on “KABOOM! Head Exploded, Can’t Write, Don’t Need To: The FBI Forensic Scandal

  1. It’s been known for a few years now that most forensic ‘science’ has not been proven scientifically. The only forensic ‘science’ that is properly valid is dna provided that the samples are not contaminated. In non dna tests they may be able to tell if samples do not match and thus rule someone out but positive matches usually do not have a proper scientific basis. Expert finger print examiners have been given prints to examine and they have said there is no match whereas the same examiners twenty years earlier have given testimony in court that there was a match.
    It is good that the FBI is addressing at least part of this problem.

  2. Well, this has/will screw up a lot of lives. Is there anything you can count on anymore?
    Except the constant inevitable presence of corruption and dishonesty?

  3. From the LA Times, February 19 2009
    ‘The National Academy of Sciences says many courtroom claims about fingerprints, bite marks and other evidence lack scientific verification. It finds forensics inconsistent and in disarray nationwide.
    Sweeping claims made in courtrooms about fingerprints, ballistics, bite marks and other forensic evidence often have little or no basis in science, according to a landmark report released Wednesday by the nation’s leading science body.
    The National Academy of Sciences report called for a wholesale overhaul of the crime lab system, which has become increasingly crucial to American jurisprudence.
    Many experts said the report could have a broad impact on crime labs and the courts, ushering in changes at least as significant as those generated by the advent of DNA evidence two decades ago. But the substantial reforms would require years of planning and major federal funding.’

  4. Oh, for God’s sake. The science is fine, and generally irrefutable. What is not is when the data or the results of testing is screwed up by unethical and/or dishonest reporting. No actual forensic scientist worth his salt is going to claim that the results require a conviction when it doesn’t. Will somebody here learn something about the scientific method?

  5. From the report of the National Academy of Sciences 18 February 2009; ‘And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods.’
    It certainly does not sound fine and generally irrefutable to me.

    • I read the report, and I see nothing in there condemning forensics, certainly nothing condemning nuclear DNA. Does forensics still need investigation…of course. It is a field of science and they are ALWAYS open to new research. Do the claims for forensics sometimes exceed their actual capabilities, probably. Certainly if your forensic expert is more interested in getting a conviction that reporting rigorous scientific results. In short, using that article to try to prove that all forensics is voodoo is disingenuous and promulgates a falsehood. And CSI is simply an entertaining cop show. Most experts claim that the science is, sometimes, spot on, but NOBODY expects to get a nuclear DNA result back in 30 minutes.

      • Fingerprints, by the way, have been used for several years as a means of identification, because the LEGAL assumption is that no two are alike. Obviously, this has to be based on samples, since a population of 7 billion would be a bit unwieldy. Admittedly, CSI stretches the boundaries a bit with partials, but full fingerprints were, at one time, the best we had. Absent DNA, they’re still the best we have. Frankly, I know very little about bite marks, but I suspect they would be used more as eliminatory than as positive identification.

  6. My own experience agrees with dragon’s comment; the fault is generally not in the science but in its misinterpretation and misuse. I know a number of fine forensic practitioners, none of whom would never engage in such conduct, even if it means losing a case – or more likely in the majority of cases, a choice not to proceed with a prosecution unless/until additional or better evidence is discovered.
    Many state and local law enforcement officers have long had a nickname for the FBI: “Famous But Incompetent.” Politics and careerism have been the bane of the agency in recent decades, though many fine men and women in the ranks soldier on.

  7. There has been a war in forensic science between what I call the “scientist group” and the “prosecutor/police” group. This has led to the travesty that we call forensic evidence in the criminal justice system.

    If you read the Office of the Inspector General Report below, you will see that the evidence in the Oklahoma City Bombing was highly fabricated to implicate Terry Nichols, at least. It also should be noted that this report was available before the trial, but was disallowed by the judge, who ruled that this case was too important to be tried on the facts (the defense was not allowed to even mention that this report existed, much less talk about what was in it).


    In addition to the OIG report we also have compositional bullet lead analysis:


    Now this. Why should I respect the government, its officers, and its judges who allow such things to happen? It isn’t just the FBI, it is West Virginia (state police), Houston (apparently everyone in their crime lab, ever based on the number of scandals), Oklahoma City, Massachussetts, NYPD… This is commonplace. In all these cases, the prosecutors knew what was going on, the judges knew what was going on, but no one said or did anything until a whistleblower came forward. When the scandal is revealed, none of the guilty parties is ever punished, but the whistleblowers sure are.

    The root of this problem is the prosecutor and police culture that is allowed to influence the forensics labs. The insistence of the use of their bizarre form of inductive reasoning leads to horrible scenarios and untold wrongful convictions. The idea that “this person did it” followed by the “how can I twist the evidence to prove they did it” seems to be the standard operating procedure in law enforcement.

    The crime labs need to be decoupled from this ‘legal’ culture. They need to be independent and need to be equally available to the prosecutor AND defense. That’s right. The defense attorneys need to have the ability to run forensic tests on the evidence and have full access to all crime lab findings, just like the prosecution does. The official forensic experts need to be available to testify for BOTH sides. Until then, you will only get a perversion of justice.

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