High Court Recognizes Imperfections at Crime Labs

A 5-4 majority at the nation's highest court finds that the work of crime labs is not infallible, and defendants have a right to make that clear.
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A 5-4 majority at the nation's highest court finds that the work of crime labs is not infallible, and defendants have a right to make that clear.

It's a blow for backlogged crime labs and overburdened forensic analysts but a step forward for those advocating reform in forensics and forensic evidence analysis. A narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that crime lab reports may not be used against criminal defendants at trial unless defendants have the ability to cross-examine the forensic analysts who created them.

The decision by a five-justice majority follows a groundbreaking February report from the National Academy of Sciences that identified problems in many areas of forensics. In the latest issue of Miller-McCune magazine, Steve Weinberg reported on sloppy or even manipulated work by crime labs; he concurred with the National Academy in calling for labs that are completely independent of ties to law enforcement.

Against this background, the high court examined the case of convicted cocaine trafficker Luis Melendez-Diaz. In his criminal trial, a lab report that said powder found in packages in his car was cocaine was admitted as evidence — without the crime lab analyst testifying. Melendez-Diaz argued he had a right to question the technician about those results; Massachusetts' Appeals Court replied that the authors of forensic reports weren't subject to such Sixth Amendment confrontation. Some 35 states and the District of Columbia sided with Massachusetts as the case advanced to the Supreme Court.

The ever-active Innocence Project, as part of the national Innocence Network, filed an amicus brief hoping to nudge the Supreme Court towards recognizing that forensic evidence is commonly exaggerated or distorted. (In roughly half of the 240 DNA exonerations nationwide, faulty forensic science was a contributory factor to the wrongful convictions.)

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that forensic evidence is not automatically infallible.

"Confrontation is designed to weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well. Serious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used at criminal trials," he wrote, adding that, "forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation."

Dissenter Anthony Kennedy saw the majority decision as upending 90 years of settled law and creating "a crushing burden" on the criminal justice system that would see guilty defendants go free on technical grounds.

"The court's holding," he wrote, "is a windfall to defendants, one that is unjustified by a demonstrated deficiency in trials, any well-understood historical requirement, or any established constitutional precedent."

That feeling was shared by prosecutors across the nation. "It's a train wreck," Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, was quoted by The New York Times.

Phoenix lawyer Larry Hammond, chairman of the Arizona Justice Project, who spoke to Miller-McCune.com last spring about his work on wrongful convictions cases, disagrees.

"The Supreme Court's ruling," he wrote via e-mail, "is a recognition that 'forensic' evidence and crime lab reports are not always perfectly true and reliable. As the National Academy of Sciences report this year explained, quality and reliability of test results and crime lab reports suffers when laboratories are not truly independent of the prosecution. Confidence in these results cannot be assured when there is not oversight of lab conduct. The need for cross-examination in this field has become increasingly evident, and it is reassuring to see the Court acknowledge that.

"The Court's opinion may have its greatest significance in areas that are most in need of close scrutiny — biological evidence testing (DNA), ballistics, fingerprints, bitemarks and other types of so-called 'comparison' evidence. There will now be no question that the people who write these reports will be witnesses testifying under oath in our trial courts."

The Innocence Project cautiously declared the ruling a step forward: not a solution to forensic science's underlying problems, rather a decision that underscores the need for Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science as the NAS report recommended.

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said in a statement:

"This case hinged largely on whether forensic evidence is a matter of neutral fact or is open to interpretation. The Supreme Court strongly rejected the notion that forensic science is always neutral and based on solid science. The Court said our criminal justice system can't rely blindly on forensic analysts' reports because they may distort results to favor the prosecution, or they may place too much value on forensic disciplines that have not been subjected to scientific rigor.

"This decision makes it crystal clear that we need a National Institute of Forensic Science to stimulate research and set parameters for report-writing and testimony to ensure that only scientifically valid and reliable conclusions are brought into court when people's life and liberty are at stake."

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