In serious criminal cases, there is often significant weight afforded the testimony of forensic “experts” who are offering their professional insight on behalf of the state.
However, our Birmingham homicide defense attorneys know that far too often, the credentials and experience that allow one to become an “expert” in this field are questionable.
Take, for example, a recent story by non-profit journalism sourceProPublica, which in conjunction with PBS Frontline conducted a yearlong investigation into America’s morgues, coroners and forensic examiners. A first-person account by Leah Bartos revealed how easy it can be to become an “expert” in the field of forensics.
A journalism graduate student with zero background in forensics reported that one afternoon, she signed onto a website for the American College of Forensic Examiners. She paid $500 by credit card and registered for an online course.
From there, she sat through about 1.5 hours of video instruction. She was then given a multiple choice examination online of about 100 questions, for which she was permitted to use the study packets.
When she finished the test, a screen shot informed her she’d passed and earned the title of “forensic consultant.”
This is not some fly-by-night operator. this is one of the field’s largest and most prestigious professional groups. Having that kind of a background could, in theory, qualify her to establish her qualification as an “expert” witness in criminal and/or civil trials. For another $50, the organization would ship her a white lab coat, along with her certificate.
Now, it’s unlikely that esteemed prosecutors are putting $500-a-pop forensic consultants on the stand at major felony trials. However, the point is that titles don’t always mean as much as they might seem and an experienced defense lawyer will always question the credentials of individuals who hold themselves out to be experts.
This is especially important because the testimony from forensic professionals tends to be given a great deal of credence by jurors and judges alike. As the ProPublica article pointed out, testimony regarding ballistics, hair and fiber analysis and fingerprints are often enough to sway a verdict at serious trials. And yet, there is incredibly no uniform national standard by which to measure their competency or ensure their validity.
A report issued in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences called this lack of oversight “one of the most pressing problems facing the criminal justice system.”
Some former employees of the ACFEI have called the group a “mill,” concerned only with churning out as many certifications as they can sell. Applications, background checks and other credentials are often cursory, at best.
However, even those who work in legitimate crime labs may lack the kinds of qualifications that most would expect when we confer the term “expert.” In fact, there have been scandals across the country – in cities too numerous to name here – in which problems with credentials and honesty by forensic technicians have resulted in full or partial closures, reorganizations, investigations and firings. In some cases, convictions were overturned.
Mistakes by a single forensic technician has the potential to impact hundreds if not thousands of cases. This is not a matter of a few bad apples, but rather a systematic failure within the field.
That’s why we spend a great deal of time vetting these witnesses prior to trial.