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Clifford Spiegelman, Texas A&M University
(THE CONVERSATION) Popular television shows such as the “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS” franchises glorify forensic science as a magical, near-flawless tool for identifying criminals. Not surprisingly, Hollywood’s depiction of forensic science needs a reality makeover.
The “CSI effect” is well-documented. As long ago as 2009, scientists with the National Research Council noted that no forensic method (except for nuclear DNA analysis) can reliably and consistently connect evidence to a specific individual or source. More recently, President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that pattern-matching forensic procedures are unreliable. The Innocence Project has exonerated many hundreds of wrongfully convicted people, and bad forensic science was found to be a contributing factor in about half of the original cases.
These problems are not new. Six years before the National Research Council’s 2009 report, I was on a panel of the council that looked at a particular forensic technique used to match bullets found at crime scenes (typically murders) to bullets found in a suspect’s possession. That procedure, called comparative bullet lead analysis, was first used in the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What the panel found 40 years after the event contradicted the FBI’s analysis of the evidence at the time, and caused the bureau to stop using the technique altogether.
One of the main questions around the Kennedy assassination was whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person shooting at the president in Dallas that November day in 1963. Investigators had found three bullet casings on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald had been shooting from. Audio evidence found there had been another shooter who had fired once.
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