Modern forensic science has led to some great advancements in criminal justice. DNA analysis has secured convictions for violent crimes like rape and murder, but it has also led to the acquittal of wrongly convicted individuals who have spent years or decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.
While DNA testing has become the “gold standard” in criminal cases, it is not foolproof or infallible. And there is an inherent danger in placing too much trust into DNA analysis or any forensic test.
This was recently discussed in a New York Times article about two controversial DNA analysis methods. For about 10 years, the city’s chief medical examiner’s office had been a pioneer in two types of DNA analysis that were little used elsewhere: “high-sensitivity testing” and the “Forensic Statistical Tool.”
The two types of DNA testing were used for testing tiny amounts of DNA and for testing samples containing DNA from more than one person. In addition to testing local DNA samples, the lab also tested samples submitted from labs around the country.
The lab stopped using these methods earlier this year and has replaced them with more widely used tests. But many critics and independent reviewers are now questioning whether the two testing methods should have been used in the first place. According to the Times article:
- A former lab official alleged that she had been fired for raising criticisms about one of the testing methods
- One of the co-founders of the Innocence Project has been warning colleagues for years about problems with the testing at this particular laboratory
- An expert witness who reviewed the software source code underlying one of the techniques noted that its supposed accuracy “should be seriously questioned.”
The reliability of these tests is now being questioned by a coalition of defense attorneys. Recently, the group asked that an inquiry be launched by the state inspector general’s office, the scope of which could call thousands of criminal cases into question.
The legitimacy of forensic testing should be an issue that everyone in the criminal justice system can agree on. When bogus or unreliable tests are used, innocent people may be falsely convicted while those responsible for the crime remain free. Moreover, when problems are discovered, long-closed cases must be reexamined and retried, casting doubt on the entire criminal justice system.