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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

Posted October 17, 2012 12:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

Back in the good ole days, before Indiana Jones 4 and Cowboys & Aliens, I remember Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble - more commonly called The Fugitive. In this reprise of the 1960s TV series, Dr. Kimble is a well-to-do surgeon who finds himself wrongly convicted of his wife's murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Lucky for Kimble, the prison bus he is on crashes, and the doctor makes a frantic escape Ford-style as he sets about trying to prove his innocence.

(Credit: Entertainment Weekly-->)

Tragically, wrong convictions are not uncommon in real life. Unfortunately, many do not have the providence of the fictional Dr. Kimble in finding justice or freedom, and become the unfortunate victims of faulty forensics and an imperfect legal system.

Such was the case with Steven Barnes. In 1988, he was arrested and charged with the rape and murder of high school student Kimberly Simon which occurred in 1985. Although he pleaded not-guilty and said he was bowling at the time of the murder, forensics experts testified that soil, hair, and an imprint from denim on his muddy truck matched samples from Simon. The science was, not surprisingly, more convincing.

(<--Barnes' reaction after his conviction. Credit: The Observer-Dispatch)

This was a problem the Innocence Project was formed to combat. The Innocence Project is a nationwide legal network that works to free innocent prisoners using DNA testing. In addition to playing a part in nearly 300 exonerations, the project has encouraged more intense scrutiny of scientific and forensic evidence in court cases. Here's a link to a pdf listing the details of these wrongful convictions overturned through DNA technology.

Research conducted by the Innocence Project suggests that the number one contributor to wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. But number two, involved 45% of the time, is faulty forensics, which the Innocence Project defines as testimony that isn't scientifically vetted, exaggerated testimony, and forensic misconduct.

DNA technology is the Innocence Project's main weapon. It makes it possible to link individuals to evidence related to a crime, such as traces of blood or semen. It's not a perfect system, since the absence of DNA does not always prove innocence, and handler error can result in small transfers of DNA between samples. But regardless, it's been the most solid and trusted form of forensic evidence since its inception.

(The Innocence Project's figures on reasons for faulty convictions. Credit: Innocence Project-->)

It's not that many forensic scientists of the past were doing bad work. Before DNA, there was no method that could definitively link a person to a crime; most of the evidence scientists presented in the past was with good intentions, even if less exact. Percentages regarding faulty forensics range between 11% and the Innocence Project's figure of 45%. Even at its minimum, this is an unacceptable figure when considering what things are at stake.

The Innocence Project is backing two bills going through Congress that would reform the way forensics is funded, organized, and regulated. Based on our perception of forensics through CSI TV shows and other media, we would think it to be at the peak of scientific excellence. In reality, a 2009 report by the National Research Council found much of the science in crime labs wanting. In addition, the legal community and the crime labs approach cases from two different angles; though both have the same goals, a great amount of training and resources will be needed to bring things up to snuff.

That's what Steven Barnes is fighting for. After over 19 years in prison, the Innocence Project used DNA technology to prove his wrongful imprisonment. When he was freed, Barnes said "I didn't know what the Internet was, what a cell phone was." Bad science had taken a huge portion of his life from him. But more importantly, good science had given him his life back. Now Barnes uses his new freedom to speak on behalf of the Innocence Project around the country. I doubt one could ask for a better reminder of why science done right is so important.

(<--Barnes goes free. Credit: Associated Press)

References

Forensic Science And The Innocence Project - C&EN

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#1

Re: Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

10/18/2012 9:18 AM

We need to get politics out of the legal system. No one in law enforcement should get elected on the merit of convictions.

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#2

Re: Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

10/25/2012 11:14 AM

Who is going to pay him back for the 19 years?

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Re: Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

10/30/2012 11:20 AM

Here's an Aggie article related to this.

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Re: Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

10/31/2012 2:18 PM

Sure he is an Aggie, too stubborn to give up.

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Re: Faulty Forensics and the Innocence Project

11/14/2012 7:12 AM

The same folks who elected dishonest folks, who then hired the "best and the brightest". The "best and the brightest" currently work for TSA.

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