Indictment on Science

The Science of Today's Law

Report by Brenden Duderstadt

Recently, I was given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the criminal justice system. This access was provided to me so that I could answer a question that has been posed by several of our readers here at SCIENCE! E-Magazine. The question so posed asks, in many different wordings, "Does the scientific process affect the outcome of a criminal trial?"


The Strangeways Murder Case

The trial I was in attendance at was over the murder of one John Strangeways. Prime Suspect: Dusty Walls, who was referred to as "The Defendant" throughout the trial. Several witnesses were called to the stand, each presenting a large amount of evidence, though said evidence was solely based on the credibility and ethics of the defendant, and failed to find any apparent purchase in the jurors minds. When the prosecution called their head scientist to the stand, he provided scientifically accurate evidence, albeit with the apparent introspective traits inherent to the scientific community at large.

This evidence took the form of a report of the procedures followed in the tests used to discern the identity of an unknown substance, which was found on the murder weapon. In this report, the scientist (whose name has been redacted) gave a brief, non-scientist friendly explanation of the process behind each test involved identified as Sodium Carbonate, a common ingredient in many cleaning agents, which was found on the hands of the defendant. In the face of the evidence provided, the decision of the jury was made quickly and decisively, resulting in a guilty verdict.


At the conclusion of the trial, I spoke to a few of those involved, including a juror, the judge, and a member of the court staff. The judge, when interviewed, put forth her opinion that, "the trial went as well as possible, though ... there were some discrepancies the verdict was fair." When asked for a statement of his opinion, one of the jurors put forth that, in his mind, "other than the fact that it was obvious that the defendant was guilty, there [was] nothing else to say." Similarly, the courtroom staff member put forth that he believed that a "fair conclusion" had been reached, and the trial was an "excellent job on the part of both the prosecution and the defense."


On researching other cases in which forensic evidence played a major role in the verdict, I discovered the case of a Portland attorney, accused of being involved in a bombing attack in Madrid, Spain; on solely a partial fingerprint, which was deemed to match those taken from the accused during his time in the U.S. army, by not only one FBI official, but three, along with an independent examiner. This unfortunate individual was saved by the Spanish police, as they identified the partial print as belonging to an Algerian National, much to the surprise of the examiners who had indicated otherwise. The incident resulted in a major weakness in the forensic science field. The question that was being answered all along by fingerprint analysis was not, "Is this from the same fingerprint?" Now the question was known to be, "Is this fragment similar enough to this fingerprint?"


Is forensic science falling behind on its standards?


Was Mr. Walls case be reviewed or retried?


Send in your opinion to: scienceemag@gmail.com


(Due to the massive file sizes and small devices being used, the video and audio files for the Strangeway trial are available by request only)


PBS FONTLINE video: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/real-csi/