Forensics Reform: An Issue We Should All be United On

If you ask the average person, there seems to be two schools of thought on the problems in our justice system:

1. They are letting criminal go free.

2. They are punishing innocent people.

Clearly there is a huge divide between these two camps.  For example if you asked them both about Pennsylvania DUI Laws, the first camp would likely push for harsher penalties while the second would support lowering penalties to lessen the harm done to those falsely convicted.

However, there is one issue that has the ability to unite both camps and that is the issue of forensics reform.

The Current Crime Lab Crisis

Eric Lan­der is a Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT), a mem­ber of the White­head Insti­tute, and direc­tor of the Broad Insti­tute of MIT and Har­vard. He cur­rently is co-chair of U.S. Pres­i­dent Barrack Obama’s Coun­cil of Advisers on Sci­ence and Technology.

In 1989, Lan­der wrote and arti­cle for Nature enti­tled “DNA Fin­ger­print­ing On Trial, 339 Nature 501, 505 (1989). he explained then that,

At present, foren­sic sci­ence is vir­tu­ally unreg­u­lated — with the para­dox­i­cal result that clin­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries must meet higher stan­dards to be allowed to diag­nose strep throat than foren­sic labs must meet to put a defen­dant on death row.

Since 1989, little has changed.  Forensics labs remain unregulated with very little oversight.  The Government mandated The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to research and discover if there are problems in forensics crime labs. The NAS called for a complete over-haul of the system calling it “badly fragmented,” and recommending that forensics labs should be independent from the criminal prosecution system.  However, no action has been taken on the recommendations and a series of scandals in crime labs across the country has further undermined the system.

Unreliable forensics is allowing criminals to go free

Those in the first camp are concerned with prosecuting those who have committed crimes. Sloppy and unregulated forensic labs are an obstacle to putting criminals behind bars. Take for example The case of Kayla Gerdes. She is on trial in New York on suspicion of DUI drugs leading to fatally crashing into an elderly woman. The forensic tests were conducted at at the Nassau Police Crime Lab that was shut down following accusations of tainted evidence, questionable work practices, and 23 misconduct citations.

I am not passing judgment on Miss Gerdes because she has the right to be presumed innocent.  The point here is that DUI and drug cases which rely heavily on forensic testing will be impossible to prosecute if tested at questionable crime labs like these.  Even those who are truly guilty will have to be let go because the evidence is unreliable.

Unreliable forensics is punishing innocent people

On the flip side of things, sloppy and unregulated forensic labs are producing erroneous test results which  leads to the conviction of innocent people. This is a real danger because innocent people like you and I can be arrested, charged and even convicted of DUI while being 100% innocent.  As an experienced PA DUI Attorney I have seen the entire gambit of crime lab errors including contaminated samples, tampering, improper calculations, testing the wrong sample and errors in the equipment.  This happens much more often than you think and the people working in these labs are not scientists, they are mostly under-trained and over-worked technicians with little specialized training.

What is the solution to the problem?

As an PA DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney I have seen firsthand how faulty the forensics system is.  This is one of the main reason motivating to educate the public through my blog The Truth About Forensic Science because the first step is to raise awareness about these issues.  After that it is up to us to demand better.  We need to ask politicians about these issues and hold them accountable because this is a matter that effects the safety of our families and communities.

Justin McShane

PA DUI attorney Justin J. McShane is the President/CEO of The McShane Firm, LLC - Pennsylvania's top criminal law and DUI law firm. He is the highest rated DUI attorney in PA as rated by Justin McShane is a double Board certified attorney. He is the first and so far the only Pennsylvania attorney to achieve American Bar Association recognized board certification in DUI defense from the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. He is also a Board Certified Criminal Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Approved Agency.

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