Trials and Errors: Inside the Great Forensic Science Boondoggle
FORENSICS HAS TURNED VICTORIAN DETECTIVE STORIES into modern nonfiction, with lab-coated analysts flexing their Holmesian ability to zero in on tiny clues. The smallest detail—a stray crime-scene particle, a trace of biological evidence—can reliably nail the most serious of criminals, according to prosecutors, august professional associations, and other legal authorities. Our TV police procedurals reinforce that idea in primetime, as frenetic, brightly lit jump cuts serve up damning physical evidence in the form of fingerprints or strands of hair.
Popcult fables aside, the examination of physical crime-scene evidence is a solemn civic obligation. We incarcerate vastly more people than any other country in the world, and criminal sentences in the United States are substantial. We should expect the evidence that our turbo-charged criminal system relies upon to be as close to airtight as possible. To abuse such basic standards would be to feed the corrosive suspicion that our criminal justice system obeys bureaucratic efficiency and local bias in preference to the patient collection and interpretation of evidence.