Reviews | An Innocence Project lawyer’s book shows where science collides with the law
Mr. Chris Fabrication, Director of Strategic Litigation for the Innocence Project, has been on the front lines of these fights for more than a decade. In his fierce and gripping new book, “Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System,” Fabricator recounts the battles he and his colleagues have fought to unravel a century of fraudulent experts and the poor court rulings that allowed them to thrive. .
The age of the dodgy forensic scientist began with the rise of early 20th century progressivism, a movement that commendably sought to eradicate political corruption and replace it with science and expertise. But the progressive penchant for expertise could sometimes turn into charlatanism – often mixed with racism. Perhaps the best example is Sir Francis Galton, a Victorian polymath often cited as the father of fingerprint identification. Galton was a mathematician, a scientist, and something of a celebrity. But he also believed in phrenology and eugenics (he actually coined the term) and supported the involuntary sterilization of groups he considered undesirable.
Judges have long been the guardians of expertise. But judges are trained in law, not science, and they are two very different disciplines with almost contradictory goals and methods of analysis. The law favors consistency and reliability; science is constantly evolving based on new evidence and new discoveries.
For a long time, the two fields did not intersect much. The criminal justice system has developed the field of forensics, a series of disciplines covered in the veneer of science but mostly unsubjected to the rigors of the scientific method, such as double-blind testing or peer review. peers. For decades, judges have allowed trials to be polluted with fraudulent and pseudoscientific testimony in areas such as arson, hair and carpet fiber matching, forensics and ballistics.
The credibility of some forensic disciplines took a hit in the 1990s when DNA testing — a real science — began to show that some prisoners those experts had found undeniably guilty were, in fact, innocent. Maker’s book picks up about 20 years after DNA testing became commonplace, as courts continue to wrestle with this fundamental square-peg/round-hole problem: how to reconcile science and law.
The book focuses on three of Maker’s cases involving bite mark analysis, a field that burst into popular culture during the Ted Bundy trials in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s. Bite mark analysis relies on two unproven premises: The first is that each person’s teeth leave a unique bite mark. The second is that human skin is able to register and retain these marks in a way that allows them to be matched to a specific person.
The manufacturer documents how People against Marx, a murky 1975 California Court of Appeals decision with an unusual set of facts, set in motion a formidable body of law establishing bite mark analysis as a court-approved expertise. Paradoxically, in this case, the court itself recognized that the correspondence of the bite marks is not Science. (The judges instead ruled that in this specific case, the bite mark evidence was common sense, allowing them to skip scientific review.) This ruling has since become the urtext for a cascade of rulings authorizing a variety of scientifically dubious disciplines. The resulting case law has been the legal equivalent of the childhood game of “telephone”. A little after marx, other court decisions have cited him, misrepresenting his decision to allow a new application of bite mark analysis and similar techniques. Another wave of judgments was then cited, introducing still new applications and new methods of analysis. Each new citation was a misapplication of the original ruling, each expanded the use of questionable techniques, and each citation only further cemented the already flawed original ruling as canon.
In the 1990s, DNA testing began exculpating people accused of crimes by bite mark experts, a growing group of around two dozen today. These exemptions aroused the interest of scientists, who then began to scrutinize the failing discipline. In recent years, numerous peer-reviewed studies, scientific bodies, and proficiency tests have shown or concluded that these fundamental premises of bite mark analysis are simply not true.
Yet, as in other refuted areas of forensics, the courts have stubbornly refused to catch up. Last February, an Alabama judge upheld a murder conviction obtained primarily because of bite testimony, despite the fact that the dentist who testified at trial recanted. A month later, a Michigan man was convicted of child abuse in part because expert witnesses for the state said they found bite marks on the child that could only have been left by the chipped human tooth. While this sort of theory might seem plausible to an audience conditioned by CSI reruns, the court record is littered with convictions of allegedly oddly toothed men who later turn out to be innocent.
The most damning thing here is not the exonerations, but the fact that the courts have failed to course correct after learning about them. Manufacturer points out that in at least three states – Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Mississippi – the decisive precedent establishing the bite mark analysis as credible ended up upholding the conviction of someone who was later found to be innocent. That is, in the very case that still permits the use of bite mark analysis in these states – and to which lower courts must defer today – the bite mark analyst got it wrong .