For the layperson how much of our understanding of forensic science is shaped by entertainment? In a sixty-minute television episode, a forensic investigator examines a gruesome crime scene; finds a pivotal piece of evidence; expertly analyzes the evidence in a state-of-the-art lab; pieces together the clues for a decisive resolution to the crime by episode’s end.
But in the words of The Atlantic, CSI is a lie.
This week the Washington Post ran a devastating story covering massive incompetence and outright deception by the FBI’s forensic unit over a two-decade period. At the heart of the report is the revelation that forensic experts gave flawed testimony in 268 trials, some of which were death penalty trials that led to executions. In Tennessee, sixteen state defendants were affected by the testimony, including four who are currently on death row. This is not to say that all of those imprisoned are innocent, rather that flawed forensic testimony aided the prosecution’s case against them. There have been, however, four defendants who have been exonerated. The fact remains that unreliability of some forensics practices has come under tremendous scrutiny, as often reported by journalists like Radley Balko evidenced by his most recent article.
This week’s news is just one more glaring piece of evidence that the death penalty system cannot be fixed, relying on unreliable components that are subject to human error.
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