Bye bye CSI?
On February 18, 2009 the National Academy of Sciences released a long-awaited report on the fallibility of forensic science techniques. A month later, on March 28, 2009, European police reported that the 16 year search for an elusive female serial killer was likely based on misinterpreting dirty lab materials. And now, we hear a new report that DNA evidence, supposedly the gold standard of forensic evidence, can be fabricated. And it isn’t even that hard. “Any biology undergraduate could perform this” says the lead author of the paper.
What does this mean? Well, for one thing it seems that it should be very simple to draw DNA evidence into question in front of jurors. Or does it? We increasingly see mock jurors reporting they love legal shows on television. The shows they most love on television (CSI, Law & Order, et cetera) all focus on the power of science to solve crimes. They believe. All you need is a speck of evidence and it can be centrifuged, soaked in dye, blown up on a computer and you can then track it back to the manufacturer and then match credit card receipts to the purchaser. You then confront them and they confess with a curled lip and often a smirk. The fantasy that the unknown can be discerned in a test-tube is almost irresistible. It requires an abandonment of faith that is painful. On the other hand, for many the faith in government has never felt more fragile.
We may know that DNA evidence can be faked and we may read the National Academy of Science’s report and know that forensic methods need to be carefully examined. But whether jurors will believe that or see it as a cagy defense move is an open question. It’s a question well worth exploring in pre-trial research. How will it turn out? That may depend on the skill of advocacy. That’s why we’re talking about it!