Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bite mark matching: Part four of Radley Balko's Washington Post series: "The path forward on bite-mark matching - and the rearview mirror. Balko makes clear that the path forward to reform looks to be obstructed "probably because with bite mark matching, the debate isn’t just about adopting better standards or practices, but also about whether the field should exist at all." (Great series by Balko. Must Read. HL);

"POST: "The path forward on bite mark matching - and the rear view mirror, by Radley Balko, published by The Washington Post on February 20, 2015. This is the last part of a four-part series. The first three parts can be found here, here and here. Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.")

GIST: The 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that was highly critical of the way forensics is used in the courtroom was entitled “A Path Forward.” The words expressed the hope of the report’s authors that it would serve as a catalyst to spur scientific testing of forensic specialties, more vigorous policing of what expert witnesses say on the stand and the development of uniform standards and procedures, all pointing toward an ultimate goal of preventing more wrongful convictions caused by unsupported expert testimony. Reform, of course, is a long process, but in the field of bite mark matching — which again was the forensics specialty the NAS report singled out for some of its harshest criticism — the “path forward” looks to be obstructed. That’s probably because with bite mark matching, the debate isn’t just about adopting better standards or practices, but also about whether the field should exist at all. “Most people in forensic odontology are practicing dentists, or academics. They don’t make their living doing bite mark analysis,” says Michael Saks, an Arizona State University law professor who studies the role of science in criminal law. “They do it on the side. Many of these cases involve sex crimes and crimes against children. So they see themselves as avenging angels. They’re protecting the weak. They’re putting away the bad guys. Then along come critics like Michael Bowers or the Bushes, calling their good work into question. You can see why they’d be angry, even though Bowers and the Bushes are right.” Perhaps that’s why courts and prosecutors have been so reluctant to acknowledge the field’s shortcomings as well. Since the NAS report was released, there have been several court challenges to the validity of bite mark evidence. So far, every challenge has been struck down.........The move toward forensics reform was spurred by the revelations unveiled by DNA testing. The hard science of DNA analysis, which was born of the scientific method and extensively peer-reviewed, has shown time and time again that practitioners of the “soft sciences” of forensics were wrong and have probably been wrong for decades. But DNA testing is only applicable in a small percentage of criminal cases, and the flaws in forensic analysis probably produce unjust outcomes just as often in non-DNA cases as they do in DNA cases. DNA testing was a wake-up call that the system is in need of repair. There probably won’t be another one. So it’s important that we learn the correct lessons and that reform is done right. Unfortunately, if bite mark matching is indicative of the larger reform process, the ultimate result of the wake-up call may end up being fairer, more just DNA cases — only because of DNA testing — but business as usual everywhere else. That not only calls into question the fundamental fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system, but also brings up the far more fundamental question of whether the system even aspires to be fair. “We can’t let go of the past, because the past is still the present,” says Fabricant (Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project.)  “You still have people in prison because of bite mark analysis. Some are on death row. There has been no accounting for the damage done. It sounds nice to talk about the path forward. But it would be foolish to embark on a long journey forward without a rearview mirror.”

The entire post can be found at: 

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