News 06.25.09

Supreme Court Ruling on Crime Lab Testimony Is a Step Forward, But Doesn’t Resolve Underlying Problems with Forensic Science

Contact: Eric Ferrero; eferrero@innocenceproject.org; 212-364-5346


Decision underscores need for Congress to create National Institute of Forensic Science, Innocence Project says

(WASHINGTON, DC; June 25, 2009) –The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that defendants have a right to cross-examine forensic analysts who handle the underlying scientific testing and analysis in criminal cases. The Innocence Project, as part of the Innocence Network, filed

an amicus brief

in the case highlighting forensic problems that contribute to wrongful convictions – and urging the Supreme Court to recognize that forensic evidence is too often distorted or exaggerated. Today’s 5-4 decision, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, reached that conclusion.


Key quotes from

today’s majority opinion

:

“Forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation.”

“A forensic analyst responding to a request from a law enforcement official may feel pressure – or have an incentive – to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution.”

“Serious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used at criminal trials.”

Both the majority opinion and the dissent cited a recent

National Academy of Sciences report

, which found widespread problems with forensic science and called on Congress to create an independent, science-based federal entity to stimulate research that can validate forensic disciplines, set standards for forensic report-writing and testimony and oversee nationwide enforcement of those standards. Currently, there are no national standards for the content of forensic reports; as a result, there is no requirement of scientific neutrality.

In approximately half of the 240 DNA exonerations nationwide, faulty forensic science contributed to the underlying wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

Following is a statement on today’s ruling from Innocence Project Co-Direct Peter Neufeld:

“This is an important decision that will help defendants expose faulty evidence at trial, but it doesn’t resolve serious underlying problems with forensic science. Too often, our criminal justice system relies on evidence that is not rooted in solid science, which is why Congress needs to create a National Institute of Forensic Science.

“Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences called on Congress to create an independent, science-based agency to stimulate research and set and enforce standards long before forensic evidence reaches court. Today’s ruling underscores the need for Congress to take action.

“This case hinged largely on whether forensic evidence is a matter of neutral fact or is open to interpretation. The Supreme Court strongly rejected the notion that forensic science is always neutral and based on solid science. The Court said our criminal justice system can’t rely blindly on forensic analysts’ reports because they may distort results to favor the prosecution or they may place too much value on forensic disciplines that have not been subjected to scientific rigor.

“This decision makes it crystal clear that we need a National Institute of Forensic Science to stimulate research and set parameters for report-writing and testimony to ensure that only scientifically valid and reliable conclusions are brought into court when people’s life and liberty are at stake.”

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