In honour of one of today’s posts, “Comb jelly DNA sequence offers ‘unintuitive’ facts about evolution…”, we were going to do a jelly frite, but turns out we did one a couple months back (scare yourself here if you missed it back then.)
Now here’s something truly scary because it could really happen—and has. What if you were convicted of a crime based on falsified lab test results:
A former Massachusetts crime lab chemist who fabricated drug test results and upended the state’s criminal justice system was sentenced to three to five years in prison on Friday, Nov. 22. Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 charges that included tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, and perjury.
Dookhan’s misconduct is at the heart of a far-reaching scandal in forensic science. The lab where she worked, the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, was closed in 2012 by Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D). Cases involving more than 40,000 people may have been affected by her misdeeds, according to a report released in August by the governor’s office. According to the Boston Globe, agencies dealing with the aftermath of the scandal have spent $8.5 million so far this year reevaluating cases and evidence. …
One problem is that in some states, labs are paid in part by conviction, not for correct results:
A disquieting paper has been published in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics, that suggests the decisions of forensic scientists are being influenced by payments for convictions. The authors Roger Koppl and Meghan Sacks, cite as an example one laboratory for which collection of court costs following guilty verdicts is the only stable source of funding. According to the paper, in Washington those found guilty following forensic evidence against them must pay a $100 fee, in Kansas the fee is $400, in North Carolina there is a fee of $600 for those found guilty following DNA evidence, similar rules apply in Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois and Michigan.
It’s not difficult to see how this situation creates a perverse incentive, but what make this case so incredibly worrying is how intrinsically vulnerable evaluation of forensic evidence is to bias. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that when a forensic scientist is given evidence about a case, their decisions regarding ambiguous fingerprint and DNA evidence can be swayed. …
That subjectivity applies to a number of other types of evidence as well, as the article goes on to show.
DNA evidence often exonerates the wrongly convicted, as per the documentary below. But contrary to the police procedurals (cue crime detection music), a crme lab’s report does not make something a fact. Human nature still has a vote.
Sleep tite but know your rights.