Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith in The Intercept:
Despite the image peddled by popular TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which portray forensic experts as crime-fighting scientists with unparalleled gifts of observation, the field has become increasingly embattled in recent years. Crime labs have come under fire for mishandling evidence, and high-profile exonerations have exposed how “junk science” has sent innocent people to prison. The bad press has led to heightened skepticism of forensics, forcing practitioners to defend their reputation.
2015 was no exception. Soon after the AAFS convened last February under the banner “Celebrating the Forensic Science Family,” a series of controversies cast further scrutiny on the field. There was the abrupt halting of DNA testing in Washington, D.C.’s first independent crime lab — a three-year-old $220 million project whose director was forced to resign amid damning audits. There was the ongoing fallout in Massachusetts over a crime lab chemist who falsified thousands of drug tests over her nine-year career. And there were the usual headlines exposing miscarriages of justice based on junk science: a Texas man freed after 25 years in prison due to bad “bite mark” evidence, and three men exonerated in New York after more than 30 years based on a faulty arson investigation (one died of a heart attack in prison). Among the record number of cleared cases in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 45 involved “false or misleading forensic science.”
But perhaps most devastating, in April 2015, the Justice Department issued a bombshell announcement, formally admitting to a disastrous mishandling of evidence that lawyers, prisoners, and even its own forensic experts had pointed out for years. For more than two decades, as the Washington Post reported, FBI analysts doing hair fiber examination “gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants.”