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Studies: Implicit racial bias exists in forensic testimony

On Behalf of | Nov 1, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Police reform has been a hot-button topic since the 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Much of the debate focuses on the potential for racial bias in the initial stop, search and arrest of suspects.

However, two recent studies found that the opportunity for prejudice touches all parts of the criminal justice system, including the forensic testimony offered by government experts evaluating evidence in criminal cases.

Wrongful convictions often result from faulty evidence

One study conducted by the University of Maryland concludes forensic science standards badly need an upgrade. Researchers looked at convictions overturned in major crimes and found:

  • 24% of wrongful convictions involve faulty forensic evidence and testimony
  • 54% of the defendants wrongly convicted were Black or Latinx

Many criminal law experts agree that much of the forensic evidence presented in court as scientific is more accurately defined as “junk science” passed off as in-depth factual analysis.

Pattern matching methods are most problematic

A separate study co-sponsored by the Forensic Justice Project states specific types of forensic analysis are inherently subjective, meaning they heavily rely on an examiner’s judgment. These include:

  • Bloodstains
  • Hair
  • Footwear
  • Tire impressions
  • Toolmarks
  • Firearms

The authors concluded judges, jurors and prosecutors routinely accept forensic experts’ testimony without a critical eye. Many presume these examiners are neutral parties with no stake in the outcome of cases. However, the research finds they are just as susceptible to bias as anyone else.

Suspect information often leads experts to conclusions

Forensic examiners often receive information irrelevant to their purposes, such as the lead suspect’s name, race and background. Researchers say knowing that information often encourages examiners to connect the dots between the evidence and the suspect.

The authors say the government must adopt new standards to prevent wrongful convictions resulting from bias. This includes minimizing extraneous information given to forensic examiners, removing forensic labs from law enforcement control and allowing cross-examination of analysts over potential racial prejudice.