Study highlights shortfalls of several widely used forensic techniques

New research suggests that many forensic techniques do not necessarily produce credible evidence and are portrayed misleadingly during trial.

Forensic evidence is often presented as one of the most objective, credible forms of evidence available in a criminal trial. Still, wrongful convictions that were made based on forensic evidence are not unheard of in Upper Marlboro and other parts of Maryland. Five of the 25 people who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated in Maryland and Washington, D.C, were found guilty in part on the basis of flawed forensic evidence, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.

Now, research from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reveals that many commonly used types of forensic evidence do not meet modern scientific standards. As a result, the report calls on judges to seriously reconsider whether these forms of evidence should even be admitted during criminal trials.

Questionable evidence

The report explains that the validity and accuracy of many forensic techniques has not been independently studied. For example, even though these techniques may be used to support allegations of violent crimes and other serious infractions, there is no evidence of the reliability of the following methods:

  • Firearm and tool mark examination
  • Bite mark comparison
  • Tire tread analysis
  • Shoe print comparison

Worrisomely, these questionable forms of evidence may frequently be presented to juries as credible. Analysts may even state that there is a minimal or nonexistent risk of this evidence being erroneous, even though the report calls this characterization "scientifically indefensible."

Adding to these concerns, errors and misconduct on the part of forensic analysts may undermine evidence that could otherwise be reliable. Some analysts may view themselves as part of the prosecutorial team and see securing a conviction as part of their job. As a result, they may provide misleading testimony during trial, suppress evidence that could help a defendant or actively fabricate evidence to support serious allegations, such as drug crime charges.

Likely impact

Unfortunately, this study may not stop questionable forensic techniques from adversely influencing the outcome of criminal trials. The report received criticism from organizations such as the FBI, which questioned the accuracy of the findings. Furthermore, the study merely advises judges to exercise more discretion in evaluating whether forensic evidence is scientifically valid enough to be used during trial. The report does not implement any binding policy changes.

As a result, questionable forensic evidence may hurt the cases of many people who are under investigation for criminal activity in Maryland this year. Anyone who faces charges supported by this type of evidence should consider consulting with a defense attorney about options for questioning it or otherwise challenging the allegations.