Most crime laboratory examiners work diligently to link evidence from criminal activities to perpetrators. Their work helps to preserve law and order and, indeed, national security. Without it, we would be far more vulnerable to the whims of the criminal element inclined to deprive us of our property, safety, democracy and even our lives.
However, some of the practices and activities in crime laboratories unsupported by established scientific principles. Worse, some have actually been at odds with mainstream science but continue to be proffered to, and defended in, courts as “accepted in the relevant scientific community.” One example, comparative bullet lead analysis, was probably the most sophisticated junk “science” ever presented to criminal courts. It had been admitted in criminal proceedings for more than three decades without any comprehensive or meaningful study by anyone, neither practitioners nor the mainstream scientific community. Although maintaining that they still “support the science,” the FBI crime lab discontinued comparative bullet lead analysis as a forensic service in 2005. The claim that they “still support the science” exemplifies face-saving spin on a junk forensic practice, more concerned about their status and image than about the adverse impact on the lives of possibly innocent defendants.
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William A. Tobin is a scientist who spent 27 years as an FBI agent, the last 24 in the FBI laboratory, and since then has worked on legal cases for both defense attorneys and prosecutors as a forensic metallurgist/materials scientist. He was the principal critic of the forensic practice of comparative bullet lead analysis, which has since been discontinued by the forensic community, and has published numerous forensic papers.
Distinguished Professor Cliff Spiegelman, a member of the Texas A&M University faculty since 1987, was a panelist for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences’ committee convened to investigate the challenge to comparative bullet lead analysis. He is a leader in the field of statistical forensics and best-known for his joint forensic work related to the President John F. Kennedy assassination bullets, which earned an award from the American Statistical Association. Spiegelman is an elected fellow of the association and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.
To find previous articles by these authors on the science of forensic evidence, go to this story at mystatesman.com.