February 18, 2009 / 6:08 PM / in 10 years

U.S. forensic crime labs need major reform: experts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forensic crime labs are producing unreliable evidence at a time when popular television shows are raising expectations, experts said Wednesday.

A laboratory technician prepares urine samples for tests on doping at the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analysis in Lausanne, January 17, 2006. REUTERS/ARC-Jean-Bernard Sieber

Fingerprints, hair and shoe print analysis, toolmarks and toxicology can all be questioned, the independent National Research Council committee said. Only DNA analysis has any kind of standard reliability, they said.

Understaffed crime labs struggle to keep up with the loads of evidence they are asked to sort through, and some have falsified evidence to get convictions, the panel found.

“Even fingerprint analysis has been called into question,” the report reads.

The best solution would be to establish a independent National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts and oversee education standards, the panel said in a report commissioned by Congress.

“Much research is needed not only to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of current forensic methods but also to innovate and develop them further,” said committee co-chair Constantine Gatsonis, a professor of biostatistics at Brown University in Rhode Island.

With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, no forensic method has been proven to consistently demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source, it says.

The report offers no judgment about past convictions or pending cases, and does not suggest whether any court should reassess cases that already have been tried.

But it does note some cases that have been reversed because of poor scientific evidence, including:

* In October 2007, when Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan Souder threw out fingerprint evidence in a death penalty trial, saying it was a “subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure.”

* In September 2008, the Detroit police crime laboratory was shut down following an audit that found a 10 percent error rate in ballistic evidence.

* A review by West Virginia State Police found more than 100 convictions were in doubt because an employee had repeatedly falsified evidence. “At least 10 men had their convictions overturned as a result,” the report reads.

* Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, won a $2 million settlement after fingerprints mistakenly linked him to the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

It is difficult for lay people, including judges, to understand which evidence is scientifically reliable, the report notes.

Many different staffers have various levels of training and some have none at all, added the panel of experts, who included lawyers, forensic science experts and medical examiners.

It also noted the “CSI effect” led to unrealistic expectations by juries used to watching television shows.

“The dramas suggest that convictions are quick and no mistakes are made,” the report reads. “Jurists and crime laboratory directors anecdotally report that jurors have come to expect the presentation of forensic evidence in every case, and they expect it to be conclusive.”

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Philip Barbara

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