If you’ve ever wondered about the accuracy of “CSI: Miami,” you may have heard that real life is not at all like that. First, real crime scene investigators don’t have access to all the expensive equipment they use on TV. Also, even popular cops can’t speed up the months-long process of obtaining test results. Yes, the “CSI” franchises are a bit fantastical — they have to be, in order to solve a crime in less than an hour.
But what about the forensic techniques themselves?
In reality, many of these techniques are highly questionable. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that was highly critical of the forensic science community. It stated that forensic science relies on many assumptions and techniques that have never been submitted to rigorous scientific analysis. The report called out bite marks, blood spatter, shoe and tire track analysis and even fingerprinting as lacking sufficient scientific credentials.
In 2015, the Washington Post revealed significant problems with microscopic hair analysis. After analyzing 268 trials from 1972 forward, it determined that examiners from the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit had “overstated forensic matches in a way that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent” of the cases.
After these revelations, the forensic science community has taken steps to ensure the evidence they provide meets rigorous scientific standards of proof. That was in evidence at the annual International Educational Conference of the International Association for Identification, which was recently held in Texas. Some 1,400 CSIs and forensic scientists met to share the state of the science and the advancements that have been made in the field.
Some of the progress is impressive, if slow. For example, the chief of latent prints for the Department of Defense’s Defense Forensic Science Center responded to the lack of scientific backing for fingerprint comparisons. His team developed FRstat, software that uses an algorithm and a known-match database to provide a statistical analysis of probable matches.
This has led a number of fingerprint analysts to realize that their evidence hadn’t been as strong as they thought. Still, it is creating better evidence.
Another big project is being run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Its Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science is made up of 550 forensic science practitioners from 300 U.S. crime labs. Their goal is to develop rigorous scientific standards for a full slate of forensic techniques.
So far, the group has issued 11 standards — after four years. It plans to develop 200 more.