Forensics and Conflict of Interest


An editorial in today’s USA Today urges lawmakers to act on the National Academy of Sciences’ recent recommendation to separate crime labs from prosecutors’ offices and police departments. The NAS recommendation came as part of the group’s February report urging comprehensive reform of the forensic sciences and recommending the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Sciences. USA Today strongly backs the report’s call for independent crime labs:

Forensic science in criminal courts has been a part of American culture long before CSI became a prime-time obsession. Mark Twain was writing about fingerprints in criminal cases in the 1880s, before there was an FBI or anyone even imagined DNA. The allure is easy to understand. Juries and judges finding someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt would really like there to be no doubt at all, a desire that science could help fulfill. But science can't live up to that promise until the scientists serve the truth, not one side or the other in an adversarial courtroom.

An op-ed counterpoint article from Ralph Keaton, Executive Director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, argues that the vast majority of labs connected to law enforcement agencies “exonerate suspects as routinely as they implicate suspects” and that moving to paid private labs doesn’t eliminate bias from the process.

I would submit that the cost, both financially and in lost productivity, to make such a transition is too great to make this the best way to achieve the desired outcome. The desired result is the elimination of all bias and undue influences on forensic testing and reporting of forensic testing results.

Read the articles and join in the discussion

. (USA Today, 4/6/09)

The Innocence Project agrees with Keaton that the desired result is to eliminate all bias and undue influence in forensic testing and analysis. The National Academy of Sciences report highlighted the potential for crime labs housed within law enforcement agencies to reach conclusions favorable to those agencies – not necessarily because they intend to reach such results, but because so-called “context bias” or “context confounds” can lead scientists to inadvertently reach conclusions when they know the expected outcome.

Read more

about the National Academy of Sciences report and the Innocence Project’s recommendations for forensic science reform.

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