The forensic laboratories that are paid per conviction

The forensic laboratories that are paid per conviction

A disquieting paper has been published in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics, that suggests the decisions of forensic scientists are being influenced by payments for convictions. The authors Roger Koppl and Meghan Sacks, cite as an example one laboratory for which collection of court costs following guilty verdicts is the only stable source of funding. According to the paper, in Washington those found guilty following forensic evidence against them must pay a $100 fee, in Kansas the fee is $400, in North Carolina there is a fee of $600 for those found guilty following DNA evidence, similar rules apply in Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois and Michigan.


It's not difficult to see how this situation creates a perverse incentive, but what make this case so incredibly worrying is how intrinsically vulnerable evaluation of forensic evidence is to bias. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that when a forensic scientist is given evidence about a case, their decisions regarding ambiguous fingerprint and DNA evidence can be swayed.

The paper cites a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) which suggests that "the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts are more subjective than scientific", other areas of forensic science that were assessed to rely heavily on subjective judgment included fingerprint analysis, handwriting comparisons, traditional hair microscopy, ballistics and impression evidence (e.g. comparisons of shoe and tyre tracks).

The paper comes at a time when thousands of cases are under investigation due to malpractice by forensic scientists. 800 rape cases are under review due to one technician's poor work, another technician from a now closed lab may be responsible for thousands of wrongful drug convictions, hundreds have already been released and the investigation is still incomplete. A Minnesota lab was recently shut down after "a subsequent review by two independent consultants identified major flaws in nearly every aspect of the lab’s operation, including dirty equipment, a lack of standard operating procedures, faulty testing techniques, illegible reports, and a woeful ignorance of basic scientific principles....  (the lab) was run by a police sergeant with no scientific background, had no written operating procedures, didn’t clean instruments between testing, allowed technicians unlimited access to the drug vault, and didn’t have anyone checking anyone else’s work. Analysts didn’t know what a validity study was, used Wikipedia as a technical reference, and in their lab reports referred to “white junk” clogging an instrument.".

It's difficult to conceive how there could be a greater conflict of interest than paying forensic scientists for convictions. If this is allowed to continue, perhaps we should start giving doctors bonuses for dead patients or judges bonuses for guilty verdicts, the logic would be no different.

The paper in question is paywalled but you can find a preprint here. I find it somewhat remarkable that even after this story has been covered by the Huffington Post where it clearly generated a great deal of interest, the paper has been viewed only 12 times. I can't help but note the irony of a paper exposing injustice in a journal of ethics failing to be read because of a paywall. If anyone is able to corroborate the claims made in the paper or provide any further information with regard to the situation in other jurisdictions please do so in the comments.

References

 

Dror I.E., Péron A.E., Hind S.L. & Charlton D. (2005). When emotions get the better of us: the effect of contextual top-down processing on matching fingerprints, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19 (6) 799-809. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1130 (PDF) 

Itiel, D., & Hampikian, G. (2011). Subjectivity and bias in forensic DNA mixture interpretation Science and Justice, 51, 204-208 DOI:10.1016/j.scijus.2011.08.004 (PDF)

Koppl R. & Sacks M. (2013). The Criminal Justice System Creates Incentives for False Convictions, Criminal Justice Ethics, 32 (2) 126-162. DOI:  (open access preprint)

National Research Council. (2009). Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. (PDF)

To keep up to date with this blog you can follow Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Keep reading Show less

Coffee and green tea may lower death risk for some adults

Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.


Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
  • This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
  • The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Keep reading Show less

Why San Francisco felt like the set of a sci-fi flick

But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.

Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

America of the 1930s saw thousands of people become Nazi

Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast