Wrongful Convictions Blog

“Automatic” Justice? Is Technology Eliminating the Presumption of Innocence?

A recent legal research paper from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has raised the issue of technology’s impact upon the criminal justice system, and how its effect may be replacing presumption of innocence with presumption of guilt. A truly frightening prospect. You can download the paper here: Automatic justice? Technology, Crime and Social Control.

The nature of evidence in the justice system has steadily been evolving to be ever more founded in technology, be it legitimate and proven technology … or not. And the tendency is for the prosecution (and police) to say, “We have ‘scientific’ evidence of your guilt; therefore, you are guilty.”

And here’s the problem: much of this “technology” has not been verified and statistically validated. It just gets presented in court as “science,” and judges, lawyers, and juries don’t have a clue as to whether or not it’s actually accurate or relevant. How do you know the latest “computer app” is actually true and accurate? You don’t. We’ve seen frequent examples of so-called forensic “science” being proven wrong. Just three of these would be compositional analysis of bullet lead (CABL), microscopic hair comparison, and bite marks. There are currently thousands of cases under re-investigation as a result of scientifically flawed FBI hair comparison work and testimony. There are some infamous cases of fingerprint identifications being wrong; one of these being the case of Brandon Mayfield. Most people, (including lawyers) don’t understand that there is huge margin for error in locating a cell phone through cell towers.

The agents of the justice system – lawyers, judges, police, and especially juries – have been notoriously ignorant regarding the scientific, technological, and mathematical issues of evidence. This is why so much of the justice system depends upon so-called  “experts” to try to understand and explain what all the technology means; but, these experts, often self-styled, may be legitimate — or they may not be. Unfortunately the lawyers, judges, and juries have no way to tell. Defense attorneys will most commonly not technically question (cross examine) prosecution “experts.” This is too bad, because, in my opinion, a technically knowledgable and logically-penetrating defense attorney could just “take apart” many prosecution “experts” – even medical doctors. The typical legal defense strategy is to present “your own” expert, which puts the poor jury in the position of having to decide which of the dueling experts to believe. All this, unfortunately, leaves the justice system, and the defendant, at the mercy of “experts,” and there is no scientific way built into the justice system to sort through which “science” is true and correct, and which is junk – and which experts are truly expert, and which are charlatans.

From the conclusion of the paper: “Our deepest concern is the emergence of a potentially unfettered move towards a technologically driven process of ‘automatic criminal justice.’”

We – all of us – have a problem. The justice system was never conceived or designed to comprehend the explosion of technology. And the lawyers and judges are not trained or prepared to deal with it. It’s a problem.