FBI admits flaws in forensic science evidence – how about NZ?

By Anna Sandiford 16/07/2012

“The [US] Justice Department and the FBI have launched a review of thousands of criminal cases to determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserve a new trial because of flawed forensic evidence”

So reads the Washington Post on July 11.

The article indicates the problems with fibre and hair evidence, which are notoriously difficult as evidence types but which may not be adequately explained in court.  It also indicates issues with trying to trace bullets to manufacturers:

“The last time the FBI abandoned a forensic practice was in 2005, when it ended efforts to trace bullets to a specific manufacturer’s batch through analyzing their chemical composition after its methodology was scientifically debunked.”

It is well-known in by the Innocence Project community and the Innocence Network UK that there are three main contributors to miscarriages of justice:

  1. Poor or misguided police investigations;
  2. Bad forensic science;
  3. Poor, ill-informed or inadequate legal defence teams.

In the US cases, the review of hair and fibre evidence clearly falls into at least the last two categories; we see elements of all of these in our review casework.

A comment very significant for the forensic science community was made by Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department official:

“These recent developments remind us of the profound questions about the validity of many forensic techniques that have been used over the course of many decades and underscore the need for continuing attention at every level to ensuring the scientific validity and accuracy of the forensic science that is used every day in our criminal justice system,”

The situation in New Zealand is no different because the criminal justice system relies on the same types of forensic science, particularly in criminal case investigation.  If the Americans are prepared to acknowledge that they may have made mistakes then surely NZ should be open to the same consideration; science to be used in court should be tested before it is accepted in court and then tested on a case-by-case basis to ensure it is being fully, fairly, accurately and transparently reported.

This begs the question of whether New Zealand needs a criminal case review organisation.  I say it does, and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

0 Responses to “FBI admits flaws in forensic science evidence – how about NZ?”

  • My husband, Simon Hall, is believed to have been the first man in the UK to have been convicted on contaminated, circumstantial fibre evidence alone.

    The blood, hair, fingerprints, footprints and other trace evidence did not belong to Simon.

    Next week, Simon enters into his 11th year of incarceration for a crime he did not commit.

    The real killers remain AT LARGE and the authorities appear to be doing nothing.

    The CCRC have already reviewed Simon’s case and referred his case to the Court of Appeal in October 2009.

    There is a wealth of evidence in this case, capable of showing beyond and reasonable doubt that Simon could not have committed this crime and more than evidence to bring to justice the real killers!

    The CCRC appear to be delaying the inevitable.