The investigators on the hit CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation make it look easy, but the science employed by real crime labs has "serious deficiencies," according to a federal report requested by Congress.
"CSI is television. This is reality," says Constantine Gatsonis of Brown University, co-chairman of the National Research Council team that crafted the report. Though judges allow prosecutors to present unreliable scientific evidence as "free from error," he says, "many forensic science disciplines have low or non-existent reliability standards."
Released Wednesday, the report calls for a "massive overhaul" of the science tools behind criminal convictions. In particular, the report finds:
•Fingerprint science "does not guarantee that two analysts following it will obtain the same results."
•Shoeprint and tire-print matching methods lack statistical backing, making it "impossible to assess."
•Hair analyses show "no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization in the absence of (DNA)."
•Bullet match reviews show "scientific knowledge base for tool mark and firearms analysis is fairly limited."
•Bite-mark matches display "no scientific studies to support (their) assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted."
"No measurement or scientific determination is immune from error," says forensic scientist Thomas Bohan of Medical and Technical Consultants in Portland, Maine, noting the report found many evidence-gathering tools "plausible" but lacking in statistical backing. "I can also say as a forensic scientist that no technique for which the error rate is unknown should form the basis of trial testimony."
Says report co-chairman Judge Harry Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, "The forensic science system has serious problems." Only DNA evidence is scientifically reliable, the report says.
The report calls for the establishment of a "National Institute of Forensic Science" — independent of law enforcement officials — to oversee scientific evidence standards and research. The report panel began its investigation in 2007 after notorious crime lab failures, including the case of a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who was wrongly linked to a 2004 Madrid train bombing by FBI fingerprint experts.
A Justice Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, responded to the report in a prepared statement: "We look forward to working with the law enforcement community and members of Congress to evaluate this report and consider how best to address its findings and recommendations."
A 2005 Justice Department survey reported that there are 389 publicly funded crime labs nationwide handling 2.7 million often-backlogged cases a year. Although the popular CSI series "suggest that convictions are quick and no mistakes are made," the report says, the reality is that many labs are understaffed, undertrained and under-regulated.
"Forensic science should be a science," says William Watson, chairman of the Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators in Austin. "The reality is that this report is going to cause a lot of pain for people in my field. Defense lawyers will use it to challenge in all sorts of situations. But we need to go through this to professionalize things and protect innocent people and the public."