Tag, DNA database

Are your fingerprints worthless?

By Maggie Koerth-Baker BoingBoing at 5:28 pm Monday, Apr 16 •

Is forensic evidence trustworthy?

Science in fiction affects our ability to understand science in real life. For instance, you might already be familiar with the idea that detective shows on TV, particularly forensics shows like CSI, might be influencing what juries expect to see in a courtroom.

This is called the “CSI effect” and it’s hotly debated. Some prosecutors think it has a real impact on jury decisions—if they don’t get the fancy, scientific evidence they’ve been conditioned to expect then they won’t convict. Meanwhile, though, empirical evidence seems to show a more complicated pattern. Surveys of more than 2000 Michigan jurors found that, while people were heavily expecting to see some high-tech forensic evidence during trials, that expectation probably had more to do with the general proliferation of technology throughout society. More interestingly, that broad expectation didn’t seem to definitively influence how jurors voted during a specific trial. In other words: The jury is still out. (*Puts on sunglasses*)

A FRONTLINE documentary that airs tomorrow centers around an interesting corollary on this issue: Whether or not shows like CSI influence juries to expect more technology, they do present a wildly inaccurate portrait of how accurate that technology is. The reality is, many of the tools and techniques used in detective work have never been scientifically verified. We don’t know that they actually tell us what they purport to tell us. Other forensic technologies do work, but only if you use them right—and there’s no across-the-board standard guaranteeing that happens.

Even ideas you think you can trust implicitly—like fingerprint evidence—turn out to have serious flaws that are seriously under-appreciated by cops, lawyers, judges, and juries.

Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, was at the center of international controversy in 2004 after the FBI and an independent analyst incorrectly matched his prints to a partial print found on a bag of detonators from the Madrid terrorist bombings.

Dror asked five fingerprint experts to examine what they were told were the erroneously matched prints of Mayfield. In fact, they were re-examining prints from their own past cases. Only one of the experts stuck by their previous judgments. Three reversed their previous decisions and one deemed them “inconclusive.”

Dror’s argument is that these competent and well-meaning experts were swayed by “cognitive bias”: what they knew (or thought they knew) about the case in front of them swayed their analysis. The Mayfield case and studies like Dror’s have changed how fingerprints are used in the criminal justice system. The FBI no longer testifies that fingerprints are 100 percent infallible.

Watch a short video that explains more about the flaws in fingerprint analysis.

  APRIL 23, 2012 Categories: Latest News Tags: , , Comments: 1 Comment

An Incomplete DNA Deal

Published: March 26, 2012 – NY Times

A major expansion of New York State’s DNA database signed into law last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will enhance the ability of law enforcement to convict the guilty and, in some cases, exonerate the innocent. But, disappointingly, the measure still leaves New York State without certain protections to avoid wrongful convictions.

Related News

·         New York State Set to Add All Convict DNA to Its Database (March 14, 2012)

The new measure requires people convicted of any crime, including misdemeanors, to submit a DNA sample. It exempts those without a criminal record convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Violent criminals often commit multiple offenses before getting caught, including minor ones, warranting the broadened collection of DNA samples that can be searched for possible matches with crime-scene samples. Assembly Democrats deserve credit for insisting on provisions, included in the final measure, to make it easier for defendants and convicted persons with claims of actual innocence to obtain testing for DNA evidence on the order of a judge. Those provisions draw on recommendations by a task force on wrongful convictions created by the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman.

Regrettably, other important reforms sought by the Assembly did not make it into the final bill, leaving unaddressed two of the biggest causes of wrongful convictions: witness misidentification and false confessions. The proposed changes would have mandated the videotaping of police interrogations and “double blind” police lineups so neither the witness nor person administrating the lineup knows the identity of the suspect. Mr. Cuomo says he supports both reforms but had to omit them to reach a compromise on the DNA database expansion. Had he pushed for the videotaping and lineup changes early in the process instead of getting behind the database-only bill favored by Senate Republicans he might have been able to achieve more. Mr. Cuomo has said he intends to revisit the overlooked issues. He should do so soon.

  MARCH 30, 2012 Categories: Latest News Tags: , , Comments: No Comment
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