In an article in the June issue of
, the magazine underscores the important role forensics plays in the criminal justice system.
is among the many people wrongly convicted by unverified or improper forensic science. Of the 316 DNA exonerations nationwide,
unvalidated science contributed to nearly half of those wrongful convictions
. In Tribble’s case, an FBI crime lab analyst used hairs found on evidence discovered near the crime scene to link Tribble to a Washington, D.C., shooting. He was convicted of felony murder and armed robbery in 1980 and was sentenced to 20 years to life. Hair microscopy is an inexact science and the analysts overstated the value of the evidence. Tribble spent nearly three decades behinds bars until DNA testing on the hair sample proved his innocence and he was exonerated in 2012.
reported that one of the hairs used in his case turned out to belong to a canine.
In addition to hair analysis and the other unvalidated forensic disciplines routinely used in criminal cases, such as bite marks, bullet markings, shoe patterns, and tire prints, the techniques used at crime labs by analysts can also be unscientific. Minnesota’s St. Paul crime lab was forced to suspend all drug and fingerprint analysis after lawyers revealed that its operators “had no standardized procedures, possessed little understanding of basic science, submitted illegible reports, and used dirty equipment.” The magazine writes:
Things are slowly improving. In January, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce created a National Commission on Forensic Science to establish countrywide standards. The panel includes forensic scientists, lawyers, and police who are tasked with writing recommendations for the U.S. attorney general. Some rules, such as requiring crime labs to be clean and accredited, are no-brainers. But the justice system should also invest more money into a woefully neglected area: forensic-science training programs. Most programs don’t go beyond the undergraduate level, and many focus on the criminal-justice system rather than science and statistics. As the mess in St. Paul revealed, even the best technology is useless if analysts on the front lines don’t know how to use it. Just ask Santae Tribble.