Forensic Science in the Courtroom: The Good, The Bad and The Science

Forensic Science and Convictions

America’s love affair with forensic science may have begun with shows like CSI and NCIS, but the sciences themselves have been around for centuries. The first American  convicted of murder based primarily on fingerprint evidence was Thomas Jennings who was found guilty of murder in 1910. forensic evidence used by prosecution to convictIn response to Mr. Jennings’ appeal, a higher court pointed out the long, successful use of fingerprints as means of identification but did caution that the ability to properly identify and match fingerprints was beyond the knowledge of the average person. Thus, the need for experts to process and testify at trial.

 

Experts Testimony in the Courtroom

By the end of the century, there were experts in numerous fields testifying the courtrooms. Hair analysis experts were in court testifying to the microscopic scales present on strands of hair or the thickness and coloration of strands left behind at crime scenes. Bite mark analysis made its way to courtrooms in the 1970’s and by the mid to late 70’s experts were routinely in courtrooms comparing bite impressions between suspects and victims. Other visual experts compared things like tire tracks, boot impressions and bullet casings. Juries began to rely largely on this expert testimony and many largely circumstantial cases were decided on their testimony.

The problem is that these so-called sciences have come under scrutiny in the last decade or two for their reliability and accuracy. The problem is that these methods and interpretations tend to be less scientific and based more on craft. For example, the FBI now admits that its analysts made erroneous statements in court or while preparing expert opinions in cases in more than 90 percent of the microscopic hair analysis it has reviewed to date. This flawed analysis is often oversold in court sending potentially innocent people to jail or worse. In recent years, multiple stays of execution have been granted when the forensic evidence heavily relied upon by prosecutors and jurors have come under suspicion.

Human Error in Ohio Crime Lab Could Overturn Hundreds of Convictions

Issues with the use of forensic evidence in the courtroom does not always involve faulty
science. Often serious issues arise with the one element science cannot overcome: human error. In Ohio, hundreds of criminal convictions could be overturned after the findings of a forensic scientist in an Ohio crime lab have come under scrutiny. The forensic scientist, G. Michele Yezzo, is accused of manipulating evidence and her findings to help law enforcement and prosecutors build their cases. Colleagues and supervisors raised voiced concerns over her work and her behavior while she continued to test evidence and testify in an unknown number of cases; including death penalty cases. Their concerns about her work include using suspect methods while examining evidence from crime scenes and making mistakes that one former attorney general worries “could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.” In addition to her work, colleagues describe increasingly erratic behavior such as threatening to shoot a co-worker and exposing her breasts to a BCI agent. Her work was performed with little oversight despite the ongoing concerns about her behavior.

Defense attorneys in two cases have conducted their own investigations and believe they have proof of serious issues with her work. In one of the cases, the judge has released the defendant from prison due to substantial credibility issues detailed in her personnel file. The stakes in some of the cases her work was used in are enormous. Another man convicted of murder asked a judge last week to grant him a new trial due to her involvement in his case. The man, Kevin Keith, was just 13 days away from being executed. The key testimony in his case came from Yezzo who positively matched the tire tracks and license plate imprint in a snow bank to Keith’s vehicle. In 2010, a retired FBI forensic expert reviewed her work in the case and concluded her methods were riff with inaccuracies and that ultimately her conclusions were baseless.

In criminal cases, an attorney must never accept as “gospel” the findings of law enforcement experts whether it’s a breathalyzer test in a D.U.I. case or D.N.A. in a rape case, police experts make mistakes that can lead to the innocent being convicted.

 

If you need a lawyer for a criminal case in State or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.

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