Accreditation improves the chances that a lab is accurate and impartial.
This double microscope helps examiner David Larsen compare bullets and other objects.
knockoff of an AR-15 assault rifle was seized from a criminal.
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Behind the debate over the proper role of crime labs is this question: Are labs tools of the prosecution, or of justice? Certainly, crime labs are touted as impartial, scientific means of finding the truth. But the truth is that most exist in a prosecutorial milieu -- as branches of the department of justice or the state police.
Geurts, of the Wisconsin lab, acknowledges that he works for the Department of Justice, but says, "Once you become an advocate, you lose your status as a scientist. We try to avoid that, but in general we work for the prosecution, and there's a small chance an individual analyst could become more prosecution oriented. In general, we get equal satisfaction from eliminating someone from suspicion, even though police usually respond, 'How can that be? We know this is the guy.'"
Evidence expert Jennifer Mnookin sees merit in the proposal -- raised in Oklahoma among other places -- to make labs independent of the prosecution. Although it would not solve everything, she adds, "Closely tying the forensic scientist to the prosecutorial apparatus may increase the likelihood of some of these problems. People may feel that to get promoted, they need to provide the evidence that makes a conviction; they may turn into cops in lab coats."
Mnookin describes the challenge thusly: "How do you create an incentive structure that does not encourage scientists and technicians to err on the side of the prosecution?"
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Covered areas include:
The standards are tough enough, he says, that almost all labs fail the first inspection. They then have a year to get up to snuff.
Could certification have helped at the Oklahoma City police lab, whose misconduct apparently doomed Jeffrey Pierce to spend 15 years in prison for another person's crime? Perhaps, Conley says, noting that the lab was not accredited.
However, accreditation does not address the issue of independence of the prosecution, or the overall question raised by the Supreme Court -- whether the forensic sciences are actually science.
While DNA profiling has been proven to be science after years of hard work and intense argument, that remains the exception. As Professor Faigman says, "Courts are wondering, scratching their heads, about why the other forensic sciences don't look like DNA profiling."
Ain't no crime to read our false-imprisonment bibliography.
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