In recent decades, prosecutors have relied on a wide range of forensic science techniques to provide crucial evidence in pursuing criminal convictions. Several of those techniques, however, have not withstood scientific scrutiny. As a result, many individuals have been convicted on the basis of fundamentally flawed forensic evidence – a pattern reflected in the increasing number of exonerations based on improper forensic testimony.

In recent years, scientists have uncovered disturbing flaws in forensic science practices including arson science, firearms ballistics, hair microscopy, and analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, and blood stains. Forensic examiners have routinely overstated the significance of such evidence in court, improperly bolstering the weight of evidence used to support convictions. The systemic flaws in forensic science techniques were described in detail in a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences and a 2016 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – those reports reflected the strong scientific consensus that many forensic techniques routinely presented by prosecutors actually lack sufficient reliability to be considered sound science. Outside of the courtroom, crime laboratories across the nation have faced scandals due to the misconduct of forensic analysts. In one high-profile example, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed over 21,000 drug cases after a state examiner admitted to fabricating drug analyses for nearly a decade. These flaws in the forensic science system threaten the integrity of the broader criminal justice system and create an unjustifiable risk of wrongful convictions.

It is critical that criminal justice stakeholders take systemic action to identify cases involving improper forensic evidence and provide relief to individuals subject to potentially wrongful convictions.

CJPP Policy Brief, “The Urgent Need for Reform and the Benefits of Establishing a Forensic Science Commission in Massachusetts”

The Criminal Justice Policy Program has taken on several initiatives in Massachusetts to support efforts to improve the forensic science system and ensure justice for wrongfully convicted individuals.

Systemic Reform

Several states have concluded that the injustices associated with faulty forensic science demand systemic reform.  One important measure states can take is establishing forensic science commissions that merge scientific and legal expertise to ensure that prosecutions do not rely on invalid forensic techniques.  Most states, however, have no independent oversight body for state crime laboratories, despite the clear risks of intentional misconduct or accidental errors by forensic examiners. The Criminal Justice Policy Program is collaborating with stakeholders in Massachusetts, including the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the New England Innocence Project, to promote reform in Massachusetts that would establish a forensic science commission. 

For more information about how to support forensic science reform in Massachusetts, visit newenglandinnocence.org/forensicsciencema. The Criminal Justice Policy Program has also prepared a policy brief explaining the urgent need for reform and the benefits of establishing a forensic science commission in Massachusetts, which can be downloaded here.

Supporting Post-conviction Relief

While forward-looking reform may help prevent wrongful convictions as a result of flawed forensic science in the future, many defendants have already been convicted on the basis of faulty forensics and may be entitled to relief.  It is critical that criminal justice stakeholders take systemic action to identify cases involving improper forensic evidence and provide relief to individuals subject to potentially wrongful convictions.  For example, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Marian Ryan has agreed to collaborate with other justice-system stakeholders to review cases involving the use of microscopic hair analysis, a discredited forensic method.  The Criminal Justice Policy Program has worked with stakeholders involved in that audit to ensure that individuals convicted on the basis of flawed forensics have meaningful avenues for obtaining relief from the courts.

More Information

Read CJPP's Policy Brief, "The Urgent Need for Reform and the Benefits of Establishing a Forensic Science Commission in Massachusetts"

DOWNLOAD

Support Forensic Science Reform in Massachusetts

Learn More