by Roger Koppl
On December 4th BrightTalk is running a “Forensic Science and Law Summit.” I’ll be giving a talk at 1:15 p.m. Eastern time. I’ll be using the slides from my presentation to the National Academy of Sciences committee on “Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community.” It’s free and you can type in questions in real time as I present. I will discuss a suite of reforms that would break the fornsic science monopoly.
I don’t expect to discuss the fingerprint scandal in Los Angeles in my BrightTalk presentation. But I would like to talk about it here. In October of this year an internal audit revealed problems with fingerprint identifications in Los Angeles. The report, says the LATimes, “highlighted two cases in which criminal defendants had charges against them dropped after problems with the fingerprint analysis were exposed.” These two were cases that were caught in time to avoid a false conviction.
How many cases are we really talking about? Rhonda Sims-Lewis, “chief of the LAPD’s administrative and technical bureau,” doesn’t seem worried. She “said changes to the unit’s leadership and protocols were made last year after senior officials became aware of problems.” She also “said she was confident that faulty work by the [city’s fingerprint] unit had not sent an innocent person to prison or freed someone who was guilty. Mistakes, she said, would have been caught by experts hired by defense attorneys.” There are at least two problems with that reassurance. First, most indigent defendants will not have access to such expertise even if their public defender requests it. Second, many public defenders are so overwhelmed they cannot dig into a case enough to question the state’s forensic evidence. According to the LA Almanac, which cites official sources, Los Angeles County had 309 public defenders to handle 89,086 felony cases in the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Making the somewhat generous assumption of 250 working days per year, those numbers imply 1.15 cases per working day per public defender. Faced with such a caseload, would you go out of your way to challenge fingerprint evidence?
Limiting the resources of public defenders bolsters the police monopoly in forensic evidence. Isn’t it time to break the forensic science monopoly?