Virginia was notified nine days prior to the scheduled execution of death row inmate Earl Washington that an innocent man was going to be put to death, according to Slate. Washington’s execution was halted when his lawyers found evidence that analysis of his sperm was false in the case of the rape and murder of a young woman in 1982.
Washington received a pardon and was released from prison in 2001. He was in prison for 17 years. So, how can forensic evidence such as the sperm analyzed in the Washington case be wrong? The problem here is that there are undertrained lab workers look more for quick results than following the scientific method in most cases. Experts believe that the number of wrongly imprisoned and executed people is very high.
There are two major problems with forensics right now. The first problem is that prosecutors will tell analysts what they think a test result will show. The second issue is that for a couple of decades, no one knew the accuracy of forensic analysis, or if it is even accurate at all.
The National Academy of Sciences conducted a study of forensic analyses in 2009. The results of the study are quite surprising. When put under rigorous inspection, not one forensic practice held up, except for DNA analysis. The methods of hair analysis and fingerprinting were condemned by the committee due to questions of accuracy, validity and consistent application. The committee also questioned whether or not bite marks could ever be used to identify a suspect.
Another major problem right now is that jurors expect to be overrun with forensic evidence when working on a trial. Jurors also have the tendency believing that the evidence could ever be false. This is called the CSI effect by lawyers due to the popular television series.
“Once a jury hears something scientific, there’s a kind of mythical infallibility to it,” Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, said. “That’s the association when a person in white lab coat takes the witness stand. By that point—once the jury’s heard it—it’s too late to convince them that maybe the science isn’t so infallible.”
So, if judges struggle with preventing spurious forensic analysis from reaching a jury, how can the government prevent innocent people from reaching death row? One option would be to allow convicted persons on biological evidence to put that evidence up against DNA analysis. The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that convicts did not have the constitutional right to do this even if they had reasonable probability that analysis of DNA would prove that they are innocent.
The final option is to change the forensics field. Things have begun to change as the Obama administration created the National Commission on Forensic Science to put together uniform standards that will be used across the nation.