Crime labs need greater scrutiny, discipline

Forensic fraud and error are major causes of wrongful convictions, and that’s not likely to change without a lot more housecleaning at the nation’s crime labs.

As The Washington Post reports here, the U.S. Justice Department’s current review of over 21,000 cases handled by the FBI Laboratory’s hair and fibers unit before 2000 to determine whether improper lab reports or testimony might have contributed to wrongful convictions doesn’t cover the work of the 600 to 1,000 state and local examiners the FBI trained to use the same problematic standards.

But the problem with crime labs goes far beyond bad theory and training. As law professor Alicia Hilton, a former FBI agent, points out in this Rutgers Law Review commentary, ”Scientific evidence is like eyewitness testimony — evidence can be tainted by mistakes, prejudice, and corruption.” Hilton offers an excellent review of how and why this happens and advocates enhanced background checks, ethics training and oversight to rein in bad crime-lab employees before their misconduct helps put innocent people in prison.

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