Junk Science Is Dead, Long Live Junk Science

Ask any criminal defense lawyer about the joys of forensic science and you’ll likely get an earful. It’s not just that junk science is junk, but that we’re accutely aware of its use, its misuse and the impact it has on juries. So Edward Humes op-ed in the L.A. Times comes as no surprise.

Forensic science’s shortcomings have left the justice system alternately in a quiet panic or massive denial. The issue was first brought into the spotlight by a highly critical report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, which found a dearth of scientific backing for most forensics methods other than DNA. It cited evidence that “faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.” That report was followed by an even more blistering presidential commission report in 2016, which found serious errors and junk science in a host of commonly used forensic methods tying suspects to crimes.

Note the dates. The NAS report was 2009. The presidential commission report was 2016. Yet, here we are, still talking about it. And there it is, still being admitted into evidence. Argue over Frye or Daubert all you want. It’s still coming in.

But at least there’s DNA, and everybody knows that’s legit.

The rigorously researched and peer-reviewed newcomer to forensics, DNA matching, has thrown into sharp relief the lack of scientific rigor in many other forensic disciplines. According to data gathered by the National Registry of Exonerations, of the 2,363 inmates exonerated of murder or other serious felonies since 1989 (most commonly through DNA), 553 were convicted with flawed or misleading forensic evidence—nearly one out of four.

Except its preclusive use is different than its inclusive use, as DNA likes to travel and get itself all over the place. It’s like drug field tests that way, solid to prove the negative but not to prove the affirmative. Even Hume, in challenging junk science, made the egregious error of promoting DNA without grasping its limitations, from overstating certainty of a match to lab techs fudging the results.

Then comes the New York Times to troll us with the latest and greatest solution.

They call it the “magic box.” Its trick is speedy, nearly automated processing of DNA.

“It’s groundbreaking to have it in the police department,” said Detective Glenn Vandegrift of the Bensalem Police Department. “If we can do it, any department in the country can do it.”

DNA is magic. The box is magic. What could possibly go wrong?

But already many legal experts and scientists are troubled by the way the technology is being used. As police agencies build out their local DNA databases, they are collecting DNA not only from people who have been charged with major crimes but also, increasingly, from people who are merely deemed suspicious, permanently linking their genetic identities to criminal databases.

Collecting DNA has already become a fixture in the government’s CODIS database, and the more DNA collected, the better. Except when snippets connect bad dudes to relatives and the SWAT team bursts into their house, preceded by a flashbang grenade because cops are people too, surprising the nice sleeping children who react poorly to conflicting commands as the bullets fly. Or with less melodrama, having to explain to your local cop why you didn’t murder anyone when they’ve got your DNA on the coffee cup you handed to the nice customer wearing a hood.

Moreover, there is little agreement on which types of genetic material should be run through the device. Valuable genetic evidence is likely to be rendered useless if handled by nonexperts, critics say, and police officers risk being misled by the results of Rapid DNA analysis.

Handling DNA isn’t as easy as it seems on the telly, so there’s the problem of cops ruining good evidence when they try to shove it into the magic box.

“There are not the same standards and rules and safeguards that are in place for the national database,” said Michael Coble, the associate director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. “Who is going to change that? I don’t know.”

And if there were “standards and rules and safeguards”in place, what exactly would any of you propose to do to the burly cop who decided he didn’t care and was going to do it his way?

But it’s rapid, and it’s DNA, and that means cops can solve crimes quickly. Certainly that’s a good thing, a vast improvement over the prolonged process for DNA matching by experienced and qualified techs who still managed to mess it up with regularity.

“To say they haven’t been validated in the same way doesn’t mean it’s an inappropriate use of the technology,” said Melissa Schwandt, a senior application scientist at ANDE. Vince Figarelli, the superintendent of the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime lab, emphasized the benefit to police.

“You’ve solved the crime that day rather than waiting six months, eight months or years to get through lab backlogs,” he said.

How cool that they can get results in a day rather than six months, but the issue isn’t merely timing but the “solved the crime” part. Remember fingerprints, the “old gold” standard?

Even the seeming infallibility of fingerprint evidence took a big hit. Multiple experts at the FBI’s vaunted Latent Print Unit incorrectly matched a Portland, Ore., attorney to prints found at the scene of the 2004 Madrid train station bombing. The prints actually belonged to an Algerian terrorist. A form of cognitive bias — finding what you expect to find— has been blamed because the FBI examiners had received extraneous information about the lawyer converting to Islam, and they were also told that a respected senior agent had already declared a match.

Remember Brandon Mayfield? We’re always certain that science will save us until it fails. And yet, it keeps happening, over and over, and nobody seems to connect the dots that the newest shiny forensic weapon in the war on crime won’t prove infallible. Now at a police station near you.

21 thoughts on “Junk Science Is Dead, Long Live Junk Science

  1. Richard Kopf


    Why is it that whenever I hear about DNA results conducted by cops that I think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

    All the best.


  2. Skink

    “You’ve solved the crime that day rather than waiting six months, eight months or years to get through lab backlogs”

    That’s because faster is always better than right, and why Burger King is better than Ruth’s Chris. Except it isn’t and it isn’t.

    I defended a lawsuit that followed a DNA exoneration. The underlying problem was that the DNA work leading to the exoneration was junk done, literally, in a garage. What I had that CDLs don’t was cash to hire the guy that created the current procedure. He could call bullshit to the wacky use of his procedure, but your poor schmoes likely don’t have the $30-40K to hire him.

    My guy calling bullshit gets no press; your guy convicted gets a ton: “DNA solves Murder!” People believe the miracle, but don’t get that it still requires people to not stick a thumb on the scale.

    Why do you hate faster miracles?

    1. SHG Post author

      Imagine what we could do if we have the time and money for experts, like civil guys. But then, judge keep refusing to let us call them on the rare occasions when we do. I wonder why that is?

      We need to take you to Peter Lugers. It’s not roadkill, but you’ll never think about Ruth’s Chris again.

    2. Hunting Guy

      Jerry Pournelle.

      “The arrogance of some of those who are so damned sure they are right is just astounding. Scientific witch hunts are often the worst kind, and have been since the secular authorities stopped enforcing the local bishop’s decrees of anathema.”

    3. neoteny

      faster is always better than right

      The Fast drives out the Slow even if the Fast is wrong.
      — William Kahan

  3. Phv3773

    It seems likely to me that the Magic Box will sometimes return a match to a cop’s DNA. Will the cop be arrested?

    More seriously, if errors of that kind are tracked, it will provide some sort of guide to the overall reliability of the Box.

    1. SHG Post author

      More seriously, shouldn’t they know the breadth and scope of errors before using it to put people in prison?

      1. KP

        Thankyou anyway Boss, that link is a great story.

        “Now boys remember, before you commit any crime, don’t forget to hug and shake hands with Grandma for luck… here’s the lists of jobs I’ve got you all down to do over the next two weeks..”

      2. KP

        Aha! The solution-
        “She was a mysterious serial killer known as the “The Woman Without a Face” and detectives across Europe spent more than 15 years doing their utmost to bring her to justice for at least six brutal murders and a string of break-ins. Yesterday, however, they were forced to admit that she probably didn’t exist.

        The only clues that “The Woman Without a Face” left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs, supplied to the police in a number of European countries. Now police investigators have established that in all probability the DNA had not been left by their quarry but by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.

        German police who had been leading the hunt said they had probably been involved in one of the longest and most perplexing wild goose chases in criminal history. “This is a very embarrassing story,” admitted police spokesman Josef Schneider.”
        Police have now launched an investigation into the methods used in the production of cotton swabs in an attempt to establish exactly how they were contaminated.

  4. B. McLeod

    Well, I don’t see how they could go wrong with a magic box, even if they had to trade a cow for it.

    1. JimEd

      The magic you seek is in beans
      The box that distracts you from schemes
      The cow is not there
      No matter your stare
      Perhaps the whole thing was in Queens?

      1. B. McLeod

        But magic that comes from a box,
        With accused could soon fill all the docks,
        And especially fine,
        To enforce Title IX,
        In such fashion that nobody walks.

  5. JimEd

    DNA is the answer to all
    The mistakes that are made are quite small
    The science is great
    Concerns are third rate
    CDL’s will just have to bawl

    (rhymes before reason)

  6. Turk

    Any DNA (mis)collected affects, of course, not just the individuals at issue but also all of their relatives.

    ‘Ahhh, the criminal is someplace in the Jones family…’

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