Leading Judge: We’ve Put Thousands Beyond Bars With Shoddy Science

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals published a column in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal decrying the scientific validity of numerous forensic evidence techniques which are commonly used in criminal trials.

Kozinski calls the methods — including fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis — “voodoo science,” and suggests their use at trial has resulted in thousands of false convictions.

The column comes on the same day that the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report evaluating the scientific validity of commonly used forensic evidence techniques. The panel concluding that the National Institutes of Standards and Technology should evaluate the scientific validity of current and newly developed forensic feature-matching technologies, and found that many techniques, though presented to juries as scientifically unimpeachable, rely heavily on subjective human judgement.

Furthermore, Kozinski argues that methods which are objectively reliable can be subjectively problematic. Forensic scientists, who often work closely with prosecutors and police departments, are sometimes poorly trained and supervised, or see their duty as assuring a conviction. In addition, some tend to overstate the reliability of their methods at trial.

The judge fears overstated expert testimony may have led to thousands of improper convictions. He points to a Texas man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of three children by arson. His conviction was based in large part on forensic theories about char patterns. Todd was executed in 2004. (RELATED: Jessica Alba’s Latest Photo Shoot Is A Sight To See)

Kozinski is a special advisor to PCAST and played a role in crafting the report. He was appointed to the 9th Circuit by President Ronald Reagan at age 35. In his younger years, he was seen as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court under a GOP administration.

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