Forensic Science - The Good and the Bad
Like any field, forensic science has both good and bad practitioners. If analysis results are based on science, and science is exact, then how can there be opposing experts in litigations?
It is hard to escape forensic science. It is all around us, in television, movies and in real life. Almost every day some cold case from years past is solved with new or improved forensic approaches. DNA is a prime example.
Crime Scene Investigation and forensic science have allowed white-coated scientists to take a center stage. People seem curiously interested by how crimes are solved. Even colleges have gotten in on the act, as the course of the day seems to be anything with the word "forensic" in its title.
"Forensic science" seems to imply integrity, honesty and glamour as we search for truth and justice and to make our world a safer place. The problem is we are dealing with science and scientific principles and people. Any or all of which can create mistakes.
There is a sort of circling of the wagons by some forensic scientists who want people to believe that they maintain a “zero” rate of error. Any true scientist knows that is impossible. Dirty glassware, tired examiners, and bosses pushing for performance all can affect the reliability of a forensic answer.
In May of 2004, the FBI apologized to Brandon Mayfield for mistakenly linking the American lawyer’s fingerprint to one found near the scene of a terrorist bombing in Spain. The FBI said they found his prints on numerous crucial pieces of evidence. That blunder led to his imprisonment for two weeks. It was the Spanish authorities who caught the mistake and released Mayfield. But how could that and dozens of other mistakes happen? We have been led to believe in the infallibility of fingerprints as a solver of crimes. Imagine being Mayfield and having the FBI tell you they found your prints all over the bomb scene. The next thing you know you are in a Spanish jail cell.
On the other hand, what about John Mark Karr? DNA tests failed to link Karr to the slaying of child beauty contestant JonBenet Ramsey. Karr confessed to the killing but through forensic examinations was found not to be the source of the DNA found on the underwear of JonBenet Ramsey. That disproved his claim that he was sexually involved with the child and killed her by accident. Further forensic evidence uncovered during the original investigation and never disclosed to the public also led authorities to know Karr was lying. He, of course, didn’t know some of these important details.
Forensic science, when properly used can be all that and a cup of soup. It is not infallible though and results as well as examiners should be properly scrutinized before they are relied upon.
Larry F. Stewart has earned an AA degree from Florida Tech University, a BS in Forensic Science degree from the University of Central Florida, and a MS of Forensic Sciences degree from Antioch University. He has worked as a forensic scientist for over 25 years. During that time he has worked on many notable cases to include; Unabomber, accused war criminals, e.g. John Demanjuk, a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible, the reinvestigation of the Martin Luther King/JFK/CIA conspiracy theory, Jon Benet Ramsey, 9/11 attacks, Martha Stewart, and DC Sniper. He has testified as an expert witness in state, federal, military and foreign courts of law. He has also testified at The Hague and before the U.S. Congress. In his position as Lab Director and Chief Forensic Scientist for the US Secret Service, he managed up to 120 scientists, technicians, and support staff. In 2005, Mr. Stewart began the independent forensic consulting and investigative firm known as Stewart Forensic Consultants, LLC.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.