Improving Forensic Evidence

by Don Boudreaux on May 18, 2008

in Crime, Law, Myths and Fallacies

My friend and former classmate at both NYU and Auburn, Roger Koppl, has this excellent essay in Forbes.  In it, Roger explodes some myths about the reliability of forensic evidence — and proposes useful reforms to improve the reliability of such evidence.  Here are the final few paragraphs:

How can we preserve the
usefulness of forensic evidence while protecting the public when it
breaks down? The core problem with the forensic system is monopoly.
Once evidence goes to one lab, it is rarely examined by any other. That
needs to change. Each jurisdiction should include several competing
labs. Occasionally the same DNA evidence, for instance, could be sent
to three different labs for analysis.

This procedure may seem like a waste. But such checks would save
taxpayer money. Extra tests are inexpensive compared to the cost of
error, including the cost of incarcerating the wrongfully convicted. A
forthcoming study I wrote for the Independent Institute (a
government-reform think tank) shows that independent triplicate
fingerprint examinations in felony cases would not only eliminate most
false convictions that result from fingerprint errors but also would
reduce the cost of criminal justice if the false-positive error rate is
more than 0.115%, or about one in a thousand.

Other reforms should include making labs independent of law
enforcement and a requirement for blind testing. When crime labs are
part of the police department, some forensic experts make mistakes out
of an unconscious desire to help their "clients," the police and
prosecution. Independence and blind testing prevent that. Creating the
right to a forensic expert for the defense would help restore the
imbalance in scientific firepower that too often exists between
prosecution and defense. Private labs are subject to civil liability
claims and administrative fines, giving them financial incentives to
get it right.

Sounds right to me.


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