The Dangers of Junk Science in the Criminal Justice System

4 mins read

Junk science ruins innocent lives and the criminal legal system is overwhelmed by this type of faulty scientific information. It’s an outrage. If you’re not deeply disturbed by what’s going on, I need you to pay close attention. Let me explain …

Shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have shaped the way that juries see forensic evidence. There’s a myth that this type of evidence is infallible. That is simply untrue and has led to wrongful convictions and even wrongful executions!

First of all, polygraphs are bullshit. The test is pseudoscience. Most often, it’s used by law enforcement to coerce confessions. Thankfully in New York, in the criminal context, polygraph evidence is not admissible because it has not been established as sufficiently reliable.

Bite mark comparison evidence is finally being seen as what it is — pseudoscience. From Innocence Project: “Nearly a quarter of people exonerated since 1989 were wrongfully convicted based on false or misleading forensic evidence, like bite marks.”

Shoe prints or tire tracks left at the scene of a crime are widely seen as unreliable. And that is in spite of this being one of the best scenes in the greatest movie of all time:

Now, on to fingerprints. You often hear about a “latent print” left at a crime scene leads to the identification of a suspect. Well, even the FBI now says that fingerprint analysis could have a false-positive rate as high as 1 error in 306 cases. That is so egregious. 

Next up: ballistics matching. When a gun is recovered, they test it. They fire the gun multiple times in a lab and compare the grooves and scratches that the firing pin and the interior of the gun left on its cartridge casings with those on casings found at the crime scene.

Firearms examiners claim they can “match” a cartridge case or bullet to a specific gun. But science is not on their side. The few studies that exist indicate that examiners cannot reliably determine whether bullets or cartridges were fired by a particular gun.

But all of these types of evidence have been used in court!

And led to convictions and even executions! Why are we allowing this? Why is this happening? 

There are a lot of reasons. Judges are supposed to be the gatekeepers who prevent bad evidence from being introduced in court, but as we know, there are far more former prosecutors on the bench than former public defenders and they are often reluctant to keep this evidence out. It would require former prosecutor judges to omit what used to be one of their most powerful tools in the courtroom — and could even force them to reckon with some of their own past trials and the evidence they used to get convictions. 

But also, as with many things, you need to follow the money. This model has created an opportunity for profits. There are so many who stand to benefit from the admissibility of junk science in courts — corporations, agencies, institutions, individuals, and more.

Let me end this by saying there are people out there who are hostile to reform and hostile to science, but we have to fight back. We all need to follow and join the efforts by @innocence, @aclu, and the folks trying to protect the legal system from junk science.

Originally published as a thread on Twitter.

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