Although DNA/forensic science may appear to swiftly and reliably solve crimes with flashy graphics on television crime dramas, John Oliver called out the “bullshit” of forensic science on “Last Week, Tonight” (originally aired Oct. 1, 2017). HBO has posted Oliver’s focus segment on YouTube. Oliver explains the surprising problem with a wide-range of forensic “science” methods is that pro-prosecution experts make exaggerated claims of uniqueness which can result in wrongful convictions. Citing the 2009 NAS report and the 2016 PCAST report, Oliver sharply criticizes the reliability of the pattern impression methods of hair comparison, bite mark, and tool mark. To his credit, Oliver also addresses a more nuanced problem with fingerprints and DNA.
While acknowledging the foundational validity supporting the uniqueness of fingerprints and DNA, Oliver highlighted that problems occur when experts can “match” 2 or more persons to a degraded latent print collected at a crime scene or a partial profile of “touch” DNA. The police have the wrong guy, but because multiple experts mistakenly believe they can “match” his fingerprint to a degraded latent collected from crime scene evidence, bad things happen to an innocent person. Brandon Mayfield experienced this frightening scenario when the FBI arrested him in connection with the 2003 terrorist bombing at the Madrid train station after multiple experts erroneously concluded that Mayfield’s fingerprint matched a partial latent lifted from crime scene evidence.
Although Oliver did not recognize a critical safeguard against faulty forensics is ensuring complete pretrial discovery and expert resources for the defense related to the forensic methods used in the collection and interpretation of data, his focus segment hits the mark.
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