The Problem(s) With Crime Labs

by Elizabeth on October 1, 2013

in Criminal Justice

In what’s known as the “CSI effect” most people who lack true insight into the justice system get their information from television dramas. And when it comes to crime labs, this information is often over-exaggerated, to put it mildly. Instead of the infallible experts who use unquestioned scientific techniques to always get to the bottom of a crime, the reality is usually quite different. In an in-depth piece from Prison Legal News, we are invited to learn more about the truth of crime labs, their problems, and just how much they differ from the ideal portrayed on primetime dramas.

Starting with the people in the lab—they aren’t always scientists. Sometimes they are only required to be a high school graduate to get a job in a crime lab. While you would think their on-the-job training would make up for their lack of education, that isn’t necessarily true either. Often the lab work itself is flawed and based on questionable “science”.

We’d like to think of crime labs and their workers as unbiased fact seekers. But they are often in tight with the police and prosecution. As Matt Clarke writes, “many crime labs are run by or affiliated with police departments, which have a vested interest in clearing unsolved crimes and securing convictions.”

CSI Effect in crime labsIf a police officer shares his suspicions about a case with the lab worker when he turns over evidence, for instance, there may be some prejudice on the part of the lab worker, who not only wants to prove his buddy right but who feels like a crime-fighter himself. In the worse cases, lab workers will actually falsify their results to align with what the police are seeking.

Even the most basic of lab evaluations may be inherently flawed. According to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, even fingerprint comparisons, hair and fiber analysis, and bullet matching is not an exact science, despite what most crime labs would have you think. These procedures, and those more complex ones, lack “peer review or validation.” In other words, they are not sound science.

Using precedence, these methods are allowed to enter the courts and stay there, earning some respect despite not being solid science.

This essentially means that once a forensic method has been accepted by one trial court, it has a good chance of becoming an acceptable technique elsewhere. This leads to the acceptance of methods that have no basis in science or fact – junk science.

When you are accused of a crime, the physical evidence against you is typically given considerable weight. But often its collection procedures, analysis, and presentation are flawed. Most modern crime labs are operating with at least some of this dysfunction, considerably harming the due process rights of defendants in the process.



Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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