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Originally published Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Crime science tackles tainted image at Seattle meeting

The overriding issue at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Seattle this week isn't likely to find its way into a "CSI" television script. In the wake of a blistering report on the nation's crime labs, forensic experts are trying to shore up the scientific credentials of many of their workhorse techniques.

Seattle Times science reporter

The lineup of presentations at the country's biggest forensic-science conference bristles with the bizarre and macabre.

There's a review of fatalities from exploding pool filters, an experiment that found cockroaches will feed on blood, and the case of a man who hammered a bullet into his own stomach.

But the overriding issue at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) meeting in Seattle this week is less likely to find its way into a "CSI" television script. In the wake of a blistering report on the nation's crime labs, forensic experts are scrambling to shore up the scientific credentials of many of their workhorse techniques.

"The theme of this meeting is 'Putting our house in order,' " said Thomas Bohan, the physicist-turned-forensics-expert who leads the 6,000-member organization.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel concluded last year that analysis of bite marks, blood spatters, handwriting and even fingerprints is not backed by the type of rigorous evidence that is standard in other scientific disciplines.

"The dominant message here ... is that the emperor really doesn't have all his clothes on," said Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University and an organizer of the NAS review.

Bohan said most forensic scientists have taken that message to heart.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy established a forensic-science subcommittee, and legislation will be introduced in Congress next month to bolster research and oversight of crime labs. But Bohan is impatient for progress.

"Everybody is talking about what to do," he said.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is beginning to fund fundamental research in several areas, including ballistics and fire-debris analysis, said Michael Sheppo, leader of the forensic sciences at DOJ's research arm.

One project will seek to determine the error rate in fingerprint analysis — an area where law-enforcement experts had long insisted their record was perfect.

"That's a statement no scientist could accept," said Paul Giannelli, a legal-forensics expert at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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One of the most high-profile fingerprint failures was the FBI's misidentification of a Portland lawyer as the culprit behind a 2004 train bombing in Madrid. Scandals at crime labs across the country also have underscored the potential for fraud and sloppy science. Breath-test results from drunken-driving suspects in Washington state were thrown out in 2008 after an audit of the State Patrol's toxicology lab found negligence, ethical lapses and a "culture of compromise."

AAFS President-elect Joe Bono, a veteran of the Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Agency, agrees that a nationwide critique was overdue. But he says the criticism doesn't mean law-enforcement techniques are invalid.

Long experience has shown that fingerprints are unique to individuals, and that gun barrels leave distinctive marks on bullets, he said. The uncertainty arises when investigators have only a partial or smudged print or a flattened bullet to work with. "The question is how much do you need" to make an identification, he said.

With DNA evidence, which was developed by biomedical researchers and vetted through peer-reviewed studies, experts can estimate the probability of a mismatch. The equivalent verification studies don't exist for fingerprint analysis and many other crime-scene methods, the NAS report pointed out.

Bono said crime labs, law-enforcement agencies and others have conducted research but just haven't pulled the results together.

But Giannelli, who contributed to the NAS report, said the science needs to be independent and peer-reviewed. "There's one thing worse than no study, and that's a bad study," he said. "If you're going to drape yourself in the mantle of science, you need to apply the culture of science."

While the science may improve, there's widespread resistance to the NAS recommendation that crime labs be separated from law-enforcement agencies to prevent potential bias, Bohan said.

Much of the motivation for change will come out of the courtroom, review organizer Kennedy predicted. Defense attorneys are beginning to question prosecutors' claims about the accuracy and reliability of forensic evidence.

"At the end of the day, some judge is going to ask the hard questions that arise out of that report," he said.

Despite the controversy swirling around their profession, forensic scientists working on the front lines haven't lost their sense of humor, if the titles of their presentations are any indicator. On Friday's agenda: "Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire: Genital thermal injuries from air bag exhaust."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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