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Forensic evidence used in criminal cases is not always accurate

In criminal cases, the prosecution often relies on forensic evidence to strengthen their cases against the accused. Additionally, many judges and juries will view this type of evidence as reliable forms of proof. But is it?

Last month, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on forensic science and its use in the criminal courts. The report is the end result of a year-long study that included the review of more than 2,000 academic papers, careful study of the interaction between science and the law, and input from forensic scientists, judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, academic researchers, advocates for criminal justice reform and members of several federal agencies.

The PCAST study identified two gaps in the use of forensic science in criminal cases warranted further attention:

  • The need for clarity about the scientific standards for the validity and reliability of forensic methods
  • The need to evaluate specific forensic methods to determine whether they have been scientifically established to be valid and reliable

The study began the process of closing these gaps for several forensic methods for comparing DNA samples, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearm marks, footwear and hair. Overall, the study found that many of these methods have resulted in faulty forensic evidence in roughly half of all exonerated cases. The report recommends Federal action by several agencies to strengthen forensic science and promote rigorous standards for its use in the courtroom.

"The integrity of our criminal-justice system deserves no less," said Harry T. Edwards and Jennifer L. Mnookin in a Washington Post op-ed piece. "Requiring that the forensic methods we use in court have a reasonable modicum of scientific validity is neither pro-defense nor pro-prosecution; it is, rather, both pro-science and pro-justice."

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