News 02.25.10

The Many Faces of Forensic Science

In 1985,

Rolando Cruz

and

Alejandro Hernandez

were sentenced to death in Illinois for the murder of a ten-year-old girl. They were convicted based mainly on admissions they allegedly gave to police. Biological evidence didn’t play a role in their trials. The case was far from over, however, and science would play a central role in the years ahead.

Ten years later, DNA testing helped set the two free. Cruz and Hernandez were exonerated when DNA evidence uncovered by the Medill Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions implicated another man, since identified as Brian Dugan, in the crime.

In November of last year, Dugan was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die. A column in

today’s Daily Herald

examines the case’s 27-year history and considers the number of victims it has left in its wake. The case has also left a fascinating trail of forensic science, from DNA to the emerging practice of functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (fMRI, which examines brain activity.

In considering Dugan’s punishment, jurors heard testimony on his mental condition from psychologists and from a neuroscientist who works with fMRI. As

Michael Haederle writes in Miller-McCune magazine this week

, neuroscientist Kent Kiehl testified that magnetic scans of Dugan’s brain showed the impact of his mental illness and suggested that he didn’t feel emotion like others, possibly disqualifying him for the death penalty. It may have been the first time fMRI was used in a capital sentencing hearing.

Other supporters of fMRI suggest that someday the technique could be used in court as a sort of lie detector. This case and others have spawned questions about whether fMRI should be admitted in a courtroom before the practice has been vetted by an independent agency.

The history of wrongful convictions in the United States is replete with new forms of science, and further research is needed to validate existing and new forensic techniques. A groundbreaking report from the National Academy of Sciences last year found that no forensic discipline other than DNA analysis has been subjected to the kind of rigorous scientific evaluation needed to develop reliable information. Unvalidated and improper forensic testimony can have a devastating impact on a criminal case, misleading jurors and contributing to injustice.

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld is speaking about the impact of the NAS report and the need for a federal forensic entity this week at

the annual meeting of the American Association of Forensic Scientists’ in Seattle

.

Learn more about forensic oversight and

call on Congress to create a federal oversight agency

.

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