Tuesday, Aug 22, 2017
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EDITORIAL

Forensics’ weak convictions

The Ohio public defender wants there to be a review of cases where forensic “science” that’s been called into question may have helped send people to prison. While defense-side institutions should take the lead in such a review, the attorney general and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation must fully cooperate.

In many cases where DNA has cleared a defendant, forensic scientists had “incorrectly” told juries that similarities between hair or other samples from a crime scene and a suspect “implicated defendants … with a high degree of certainty,” the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said in a September report.

Timothy Young, the state public defender, told The Blade editorial board that when it comes to hair, you can never say “match.” He’s prioritizing hair, but he wants to move on to other pattern-recognition cases. At least some of the sciences that have been questioned do have value, he said, but they may have been treated as if they were more reliable than the evidence shows they are.

Attorney General Mike DeWine told The Blade editorial board that BCI has stopped doing hair comparisons. “It’s not like a fingerprint,” he said. It’s even legitimate to ask whether some of the “forensic sciences” that have been practiced are sciences at all. “A so-called expert may not be able to do any more evaluation, really, than a layperson could do.”

The public defender needs BCI’s help to identify what sort of testing it did in what cases because public defense is decentralized in Ohio and many cases lack electronic transcripts. So it’s basically impossible for the defense bar to identify cases where these questionable forensic sciences were used.

Mr. DeWine would not commit in an interview earlier this month to giving the public defender a full list of hair-comparison cases. He noted that even for BCI, there would be difficulties in identifying them. But “if we think anything's reasonable, we will try” to provide it, he said.

New science doesn't mean that prosecutors or witnesses acted in bad faith when they relied on old standards. Nevertheless, we should try to avoid keeping innocent people in prison because of mistakes we can correct. So it is worth looking for cases where too much weight was placed on scientific evidence that isn't strong enough to bear it.

It’s reasonable for defense-side institutions, such as the state public defender's office and the Innocence Project, to take primary responsibility for reviewing cases. They're more likely to read ambiguous records in ways that favor defendants.

But since the defense side can’t even look at many cases unless BCI identifies them, BCI must at the very least tell the public defender what cases it has used each kind of forensic science in. Beyond that, it should cooperate fully with the review, providing whatever notes and other records it can. BCI’s obligation is to pursue truth and justice, even when that means reversing convictions.

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