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Autopsy of a Crime Lab

In his new book, Brandon Garrett illuminates the flaws in forensic science

Brandon Garrett and Autopsy of a Crime Lab book

Nearly 20 years ago, as a civil rights fellow at the famed law firm Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck (now NSB Civil Rights), Brandon Garrett was struck by the role that flawed forensic evidence played in many of his clients’ wrongful convictions.

That experience is one reason why Garrett, now the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law, has made preventing wrongful convictions through research on accuracy and transparency in forensic science a priority for the Wilson Center for Science and Justice, which he directs. While DNA evidence has helped exonerate more than 350 people since it was first used in 1989, more than half were convicted on the basis of fingerprint, bite mark, blood spatter, or other forensic analysis presented at trial, according to a database Garrett maintains.

In his latest book, Autopsy of a Crime Lab: Exposing the Flaws in Forensics (UC Press, 2021), Garrett conducts a critical review of how forensics are used in criminal cases, detailing the many ways that evidence relied upon by courts and juries can be — and frequently is — compromised on its way from the crime scene to the lab to the courtroom. They include: an overreliance on forensic analysis methods that lack scientific validity or have been disproved altogether; the lack of federal regulation of crime labs; and the allowing of trial testimony by “expert” witnesses with unvetted proficiency, undisclosed bias or conflicts of interest, and claims of “100% certainty” in results from methods with troubling error rates not disclosed to jurors. In most criminal cases, this evidence is presented by prosecution witnesses and goes unchallenged by under-resourced defense teams — if the case goes to trial at all.

The book illuminates the failure of the forensic profession to self-regulate and the toll that widespread problems at crime labs and with forensic disciplines themselves have taken on the integrity of the criminal legal system. Garrett also proposes a comprehensive reform agenda that includes adequate funding, independence from law enforcement, and the establishment of quality-control measures at the nation’s virtually unregulated network of crime labs.

“Stubborn resistance to criticism and hostility to scientific research is the very antithesis of good science,” Garrett writes. “What leading scientists keep telling us is that, apart from the DNA area, no forensic techniques have undergone sufficiently rigorous testing. Error rates have been unknown. … Simply put, we need to bring good science to forensics.”

Origins of crime labs are in law enforcement, not science

Garrett traces crime labs’ origins in the Prohibition era, which inform the way many still operate today. They didn’t emerge from the scientific community but as evidence-processing divisions within law enforcement, staffed by police officers. Today there are more than 400 publicly funded crime labs in the U.S., the majority of which are still part of law enforcement agencies.

“When you get your funding from police you see yourself as an arm of law enforcement to help solve crimes,” Garrett points out.

The “war on drugs,” a term coined during the Nixon administration, spurred an expansion of crime labs, and today drug-testing accounts for about half the work of a typical lab. The other half involves linking evidence to individuals through firearm and fingerprint analysis, and disciplines like hair and handwriting comparison. DNA analysis, despite its high profile, makes up only 4% to 5% of most labs’ work, yet three-quarters of the $200 million in federal grants available to crime labs is earmarked for it.

There are no federal regulations holding crime labs processing evidence that could send a person to death row to scientific or quality standards. That’s in stark contrast, Garrett notes, to the scrutiny given to clinical laboratories diagnosing minor illnesses, like strep throat, which answer to three separate agencies.

Lack of oversight has led to scores of failures at crime labs across the nation, covering the gamut of forensic disciplines. In Massachusetts, misconduct by two analysts at state drug labs dating back to 2003 has affected close to 100,000 cases, many of which have been vacated. More recently, Washington, D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences’ accreditation was suspended over a ballistics error in a murder case and the emergence of broader issues at the lab. And tainting, falsifying reports, improper handling, and other misconduct involving testing at crime labs from New Jersey and Florida to California and Oregon have resulted in the reopening and vacating of tens of thousands of convictions.

“I have documented over 130 crime lab scandals, involving errors or audits of multiple cases, at labs across the country,” Garrett writes. “Hardly a month goes by that I do not find more labs to add to the list.”

Along with the growing tally of costs to government related to investigation, retrial, and remediation, Garrett illustrates the human costs — from fines and incarceration to death — of wrongful convictions based on flawed forensics.

The book opens with the high-profile case of Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney whose fingerprints were erroneously matched by three experienced FBI examiners to evidence from the 2004 Madrid terrorist bombing — despite Mayfield’s never having been to Spain. While the federal government issued a formal apology and $2 million settlement, and the FBI made changes to the way it performs fingerprint comparisons, Mayfield has suffered extended emotional and reputational damage from two-and-a-half years under suspicion for terrorism.

Garrett uses other examples from his earlier book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (Harvard University Press, 2012), which analyzes the first 250 cases of people exonerated by DNA, to illustrate the many ways forensics can go wrong and the suffering caused to its victims. 

Among them are Keith Harward, who spent 33 years in prison partly on the basis of bite mark identification, a widely discredited technique with a high error rate. Harward spoke about his case, the lingering effects of his long incarceration, and his struggle to rebuild his life during an emotional appearance at Duke Law in 2019.

“I’ll never be free. This is something I have to live with the rest of my life,” he said.

The reform agenda: a way forward

Autopsy of a Crime Lab also documents how the scientific community and concerned government leaders have worked to champion forensic reforms. In 2009, the National Academy of Science (NAS)issued a landmark report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, that cast light on the unscientific methods and foundations of many forensic disciplines and called for major reforms and substantial research to validate forensic evidence and techniques. The report cited Garrett’s article “Judging Innocence” 108 Columbia Law Review 55-142 (2008), an empirical study of the evidence presented at the trials of DNA exonerees.

A 2016 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), focusing on problems in forensic techniques including firearms, fingerprints, and bite mark comparisons, concluded that the use of unscientific forensics should be discontinued until reliability studies were completed.

Scientific criticism of the forensics profession has been met with resistance and outright hostility from its practitioners, but progress has been made since the creation in 2015 of the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE), funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which sponsors data-driven research on forensic evidence at universities, including Duke, and works to build relationships between scientists and practitioners. Garrett is a member of the CSAFE leadership team. 

The growing body of scientific research on forensic research and high-profile lab failures are also giving momentum to the reform movement, Garrett reports. After multiple problems at the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, the city separated its forensics divisions from law enforcement and created the Houston Forensic Science Center with an independent laboratory, comprehensive quality measures, and a citizen oversight board based on recommendations in the 2009 NAS report. It is now considered a national model. In a May op-ed in Slate, Garrett and the Houston lab’s current president and CEO called for the allocation of more federal funding to the nation’s crime labs, severing them from law enforcement, and instituting quality-control measures including blind proficiency testing as part of a broader policing reform agenda.

In his book Garrett also calls for reforms in the way forensic evidence is presented in court. Jurors have long assumed infallibility of evidence, he says, both from experts long having been allowed to declare “100 percent certainty” and “zero error” in their testimony, and in popular culture, where TV shows have presented misleading depictions of how labs actually work and the reliability of forensic techniques.

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Magazine Cover, Fall 2021

Fall 2021
Volume 40 No. 2