Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Problem of Faux-rensics in Crime Fiction

By Thomas Pluck

Do you believe that bite marks are unique and can identify a suspect with scientific accuracy? How about burn patterns in wood identifying use of an accelerant in a fire? And fingerprints are one hundred percent unique to a person, and all DNA processing is equal?

If you believe any of these non-truths, you may suffer from reading best-selling crime fiction, and your brain may be CSI-positive. (That series of shows has done more harm to justice than any other since Cops, and it is not "harmless" entertainment. Stories matter, and juries are affected by bad writing that parrots bad science.

There is no forensic "science." They call it a science, but it isn't one like physics, with reproducible results. And it is abused by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies widely. For example, the FBI now claims there is a "forensic science" of how denim jeans wear on a person, like a fingerprint, and tried to use it to identify a suspect caught on film. They also claim to be able to identify people from tiny pixels in a digital image, as if we had the technology Deckard uses in Blade Runner to zoom in infinitely with no loss detail. As the headline says,  "Scientists disagree." Which is my new favorite phrase for "you are selling a load of bullshit."

How did we get here? We worship "experts" without ever vetting their credentials. They are often highly paid, and their cash flow depends on putting people in prison. There are forensic sciences that are reproducible, such as ballistics, but humans are not firearms. We've been misled about the accuracy of DNA identification, as well. Now, DNA is science, but the collection of it is not.
There is often widespread contamination in DNA collection, and there's a "close enough" attitude, as with fingerprints. Then they pull statistics out of their Play-Doh DNA extruder to say "there's a one in a ten million chance that it's someone else" when that means it could be seven hundred people, or 33 in the United States alone.

We also take books written by FBI cheerleaders as gospel. Not all writers are investigative journalists, and parrot what they hear law enforcement say, without vetting it. You can't argue with your source if you want access! They don't like that. Or hearing that U.S. prosecutors fetishize 100% conviction rates, so if someone has to get railroaded, or five young men must be convicted of rape because they were "up to something," so be it. Eggs, omelets. What heroes.

It's been 18 years since 9/11, and I worked in Manhattan at the time. I have great respect for the first responders who run toward danger, but when we elevate all members to hero status and make them unquestionable, we become a police state and not a democracy interested in criminal justice, but "order." There are many heroes. But if you ask the responders who the heroes are, they are the ones who didn't come home that day. They don't want be above the law.

There are too many forensic lab scandals to count.

Some writers acknowledge this. It doesn't mean there are no criminals! Just that like any human construct, the criminal justice system is fallible at best, and rigged at worst. Which makes for more interesting stories, if you choose to write them. Prince of the City holds up better than TJ Hooker.

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