Forensic Science, and the Wrongfully Convicted

Microscopes used to analyze data in forensic lab (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Microscopes used to analyze data in forensic lab (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Forensic Science helps the wrongfully convicted, and the mishandling of forensics by analysts convict the innocent.

Forensic science has done a lot of good since it was founded. It has solved crimes and exonerated wrongfully convicted criminals, but there is a dark side to forensic science because of politics and the mishandling of forensics by analysts. There have been some cases where analysts accidentally or purposely mishandled forensics for monetary or political gain.

Claflin University Forensic Lab (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Claflin University Forensic Lab (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

What is forensic science?

The Faculty of Sciences at Staffordshire University located in Staffordshire, England, defines forensic science as;

“Forensic Science is any science used for the purposes of the law, and therefore provides impartial scientific evidence for use in the courts of law, e.g. in a criminal investigation and trial. Forensic Science is a multidisciplinary subject, drawing principally from chemistry and biology, but also physics, geology, psychology, social science, etc.”

Machine used to analyze DNA (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Machine used to analyze DNA (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Reliability of forensic science

Krishna Addanki is a forensic scientist at Claflin University Forensic Lab in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The Claflin University Forensic Lab is one of four laboratories in South Carolina. Addanki processes DNA analysis and does fingerprint processing.

When asked about the reliability of forensic science, Addanki says, “DNA doesn’t lie; it is highly reliable and the most accurate form of testing available today. It is only inaccurate if there is a user error or if the analyst falsified the results.”

Addanki prides the laboratory ability to help local and state law enforcement with processing forensic analyses in a reduced amount of time. Since there are only four laboratories in South Carolina, sometimes it can take up to two years for other labs to process an analysis. When it takes that long for an analysis to be processed, a criminal could remain free to continue to commit crimes, or for those who are innocent could remain jailed until their innocence is proven.

Addanki is not the only person who believes in the results of forensic science, but also Shawn Hale. Hale is a recent graduate of the Criminal Justice program at Claflin University, who owns and manages his company, DTH Protective Services, which is licensed through the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).

Hales says, “I used DNA analysis for the past eight years, and it has always been 100 percent accurate. I find it a very dependable form of testing.”

An evidence envelope where a Chain of Custody would appear (A. Hall/ Underdog Reports)

An evidence envelope where a Chain of Custody would appear (A. Hall/ Underdog Reports)

Chain Of Custody

Contributing to the reliability of forensic science is the Change Of Custody. A Chain Of Custody is when every person who comes in contact with evidence signs their initials and places the date where the evidence was in their possession. For example, at a crime scene the forensic analyst comes in contact with the evidence first, then it may be transported to a laboratory by an officer, and then analyzed by a forensic scientist. The forensic analyst, an officer, and the forensic scientist are all required to complete the correct documentation to show who all handled the evidence.   Therefore, it will minimize interference, and reveal the exact contents if evidence has to be pulled years later.

Device that performs fingerprint analysis (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Device that performs fingerprint analysis (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

The dark side of forensic science

Although forensic science is accurate, some individuals have their doubts. The City of Detroit was in the headlines and damaging the reputation of forensic science. The City’s crime laboratory was ordered to close by the police chief, James Barren. After an audit conducted at the laboratory, it revealed officers were cutting corners and were at 42-percent compliance. The labs in Detroit are supposed to meet 100-percent compliance for accreditation. Today, it is not known if the officers’ actions in the mishandling of forensics were accidental or intentional.

Unfortunately, there are some who intentionally tampered with evidence for self-progress and politics. Annie Dookhan was a chemist at the Hinton state drug lab located in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Dookhan would deliberately taint drug evidence, forge signatures, ignored drug samples, and tamper with clean results of drugs test so it would show positive for drugs.

These are just a couple of the many examples where forensic science credibility is questioned for its reliability.

The mishandling of forensics by analysts is not the only issue because sometimes the technology fails. Dr. Omar Bagasra, who is a medical doctor and scientist, conducted a study on drug-field kits used by officers. The study showed the kits were only 70 percent accurate.

Marc Gorum has encountered forensic science in different capacities throughout his life. Although today he is a social worker, he has dealt with forensics as a Probation and Parole Officer, a military officer for the Air Force, certification training through state and federal agencies, and an Emergency Department Navigator (ED Navigator). Gorum was responsible for gathering forensics in the emergency room located at the Bay Health Medical Center located in Dover, Delaware.

When asked what were some of his challenges processing forensics, Gorum said, “The potential of mishandling of forensics. Sometimes people are trying to be helpful, but since they do not know the procedures and Chain Of Custody they can easily contaminate the scene.”

Supplies used in forensic science (A. Hall/Underdog Reports)

Gorum is not the only one who feels this way. Michael Spruel is a Registered Nurse and Manager at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Florida who agrees with Gorum.

Spruel says, “Sometimes it can be dangerous depending on the situation, when people come into the emergency room. If it is for violence or drug related, outsiders might come to interfere with procedures or tamper with evidence to protect themselves.”

Spruel believes dealing with forensics is still easier in a hospital because it is a controlled setting unlike outside.

Even with challenges Gorum feels forensic science is the most accurate form of evidence, but also believes it can only be as accurate as the person who is handling it.

Gorum could recall individuals being dropped off at the ambulance door with gunshot wounds, but ensured he followed all procedures to save as much evidence that was available as possible.

Gorum states, “Forensic science will get better over time because it will evolve, and people are always inventing new technology which will benefit the science.”

Some scientists are working on new inventions to help improve forensic science. For example, Dr. Bagasra who is known for his contributions in HIV research is now working on a device that will give field test kits 100-percent accuracy when testing for drugs.

Despite the mishandling of analysts, study shows forensic science has a record number of exonerations since the first one in 1989. The total exonerations in 2015 was 149, and of them were a total of 26 DNA exonerations. Nonprofit organizations like the Innocence Project help people who were wrongfully convicted prove their innocence.

Statistics are from the National Registry of Exonerations

Statistics are from the National Registry of Exonerations

The advancement of technology will push science limits further, which will lead to new ways of processing forensics. Forensic science will always have its benefits, but will still need to be monitored and audited for those who seek taking advantage of the system.