Understanding the Limits of Forensic Science
For decades, law enforcement, attorneys, and courts have relied upon the accuracy of forensic evidence to solve and prosecute crimes. This field has advanced rapidly and become widely accepted by scientific and legal communities and the general public. When used properly, forensic science practices can help investigators, prosecutors, and judges determine guilt. However, it’s important to recognize that forensic evidence is not always conclusive, and results can be misinterpreted, flawed, and misrepresented. These flaws can be particularly detrimental for developmentally and a person with a mental disability who is being investigated and prosecuted. Here is more on understanding the limits of forensic science.

According to the US Department of Justice, forensic science involves the examination and analysis “of evidence from crime scenes and elsewhere to develop objective findings that can assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of crime or absolve an innocent person from suspicion.”
The term “forensic science” is often used in connection with several crime-solving techniques. Forensic Science laboratory disciplines commonly include “forensic molecular biology (DNA), forensic chemistry, trace evidence examination (hairs and fibers, paints and polymers, glass, soil, etc.), latent fingerprint examination, firearms, and tool marks examination, handwriting analysis, fire and explosives examinations, forensic toxicology, and digital evidence." There are also other forms of the discipline that are practiced outside of a traditional laboratory setting, such as forensic psychiatry, pathology, entomology, engineering, and nursing.

Forensic Science and Wrongful Conviction

According to the Innocence Project, the “misapplication of forensic science is the second most common contributing factor to wrongful convictions, found in nearly half (45%) of DNA exoneration cases.” The project uses the term “misapplication of forensic science” to describe multiple types of issues, such as:

  • Unreliable or invalid forensic discipline- Inconsistencies in the use of forensic methods and inaccurate results can occur. For example, analyzing bite marks and their use in identifying a biter based on evidence taken from a victim's skin can result in unreliable and inaccurate results.

  • Insufficient validation of a method- Sometimes, forensic disciplines are relied upon even though they have not been properly or thoroughly evaluated to establish validity. As with any scientific method, the accuracy of a forensic science method must be established through evaluative studies.

  • Misleading testimony- judges and juries rely on the testimony of experts to understand forensic data. When an expert or other party overstates or exaggerates the connection between a suspect and evidence, it can create the appearance of a strong correlation when one does not exist. For instance, testimony that a group of DNA markers or other features is unique to the suspect may not be accurate depending on the evidence analyzed. Likewise, experts may also fail to fully report the likelihood that a person should be excluded as a suspect. The testimony might also fail to include a method's error rates or disclose specific instances when it has been wrong.

  • Errors- Forensic scientists and analysts can make mistakes just like anyone else. Scientific samples are sometimes misplaced or contaminated. Data can also be misinterpreted. These types of incidents can occur in connection with forensic evidence, even in well-developed fields. For example, in 2016, it was revealed that a Texas crime analyst who testified in thousands of DWI cases was questioned under oath about a mistake he made with lab samples more than three years ago. In May 2013, court records showed the analyst switched blood samples, resulting in a person being inaccurately reported as having a blood alcohol content nearly twice the legal limit. The error came to light because the Police Department questioned the results.

  • Misconduct- There is also always the possibility that there has been misconduct related to forensic evidence. Forensic science involves evidence being passed through various departments. As a result, there can be cases when samples are intentionally misplaced, exculpatory evidence is hidden, results are improperly reported, or reports are fabricated.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Brandon Garrett, Duke University law professor and the author of Autopsy of a Crime Lab, told the magazine that “when he examined the forensic testimony in hundreds of wrongful convictions," he found "a blizzard of error.” According to the article, “more than half of those exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing had been wrongly convicted based on flawed forensic evidence.” In addition, the Wrongful Conviction Law Review reported that in 2018, National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) data reflected that out of approximately 2,400 known wrongful convictions, 146 exonerees had a reported mental or intellectual disability.

Forensic Science Limitations and Those with Disabilities

According to a 2018 article from Cornell University Law School, persons with developmental disabilities are often deemed competent to stand trial despite the individual’s degree of impairment. However, many of these defendants have cognitive disabilities that limit their ability to fully understand the legal proceedings without significant accommodations. Further, often those who receive assistance are provided with inadequate support. Consequently, someone with this type of disability who is being tried for a criminal offense may have little to no comprehension of forensic evidence and testimony being offered to prove their guilt. In some cases, this significant lack of understanding may be severe. For instance, the article mentioned one defendant with intellectual disabilities who requested crayons from the judge so they could color during their murder trial.

According to a recent article published in the Wrongful Conviction Law Review, individuals with serious mental illness are particularly vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted of a crime and wrongfully sentenced to death. It is believed that this is partly attributable to the fact those with mental disability are more likely to struggle with assisting in their defense. In addition, these individuals are more likely to face prejudices from judges and jurors
Another barrier may occur when those with mental disabilities attempt to hide their impaired functioning and pretend that they understand the case, forensics evidence, and its gravity. 

Challenges to forensic evidence can be made early on in the process. However, vulnerable populations such as individuals with mental disabilities may not be able to fully understand the process or advocate for themselves at crucial stages. Further, when an individual has mental disabilities that prevents them from understanding the evidence, it can inhibit their ability to aid in their own defense. Further, individuals with mental disabilities who have not been diagnosed and properly treated may experience harsher treatment and consequences when interacting with the criminal justice system.

Forensics can be an essential part of a criminal case, and it's important to have an experienced advocate to help evaluate and challenge evidence. If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation, contact us or call (509) 991-7058.

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