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February 06, 2007


Let's not forget a potential planting of evidence (either by the criminal or the police). I have read that this has already happened with DNA and it looks far easier to me than planting convincing fingerprints.

Harris County's crime lab is a disgrace. As a Houstonian who believes in law and order, but also in justice, I wouldn't want my fate to be in the hands of that lab.

The horror stories about that lab convinced me that Texas should imitate Illinois and put a moratorium on the death penalty until we can straighten out our justice system.

One of the things that worries me about this scientific technology is the implicit belief that it is infallible, i.e. "objective" and does not necessitate interpretation. I suspect that the general public operates under these false assumptions, and that as a result, law enforcement officials tend to overrely on such (very expensive) techniques, slacking off on their capacity to put together an investigation based on clinical observation and reasoning (this is also a problem in medecine, by the way...)

"an investigation based on clinical observation"

Most crimes do not actually take place in clinics, however. The phrase doesn't carry over.

And the least reliable tool of all in criminal investigations is the use of eyewitnesses.

I betcha any foreigner detained at airports while entering the country will get the DNA taken.

That includes, say, businessmen and tourists.

On DNA labs: maybe DNA tests ought to be conducted in a kind of "double-blind" way, where prosecutors/counties do not know which labs they are sending to and labs do not know which prosecutors/cases they are working for. It just seems to me that as long as prosecutors have their choice of labs, they'll tend to pick the most compliant ones. Sometimes being a slobby scientist is a competitive advantage in going after government dollars.

I'm also assuming that most public defenders don't have access to funds enough to get an independent test done...

Good idea. And deliberately adding some "dummies" (i.e. DNA samples that are not connected to a case) would be nice too.

I read the book published about ten years ago by the FBI lab whistleblower. Among the FBI's charming habits was not calibrating their gas chromatographs. That way, the calibration records could not be subpeoned by a defense team and used to challege the FBI's lab results...

Gary, when I talk about clinical observation, I mean that the same investigative tools are at work in constructing a diagnosis as in constructing a crime investigation : listening to people's statements, relying on the coordination of several sources in order to construct a hypothesis/diagnosis , which is not the same thing as assuming that one eyewitness--or one test, for that matter, constitutes proof of an individual's guilt. Forensic medecine, when it is exercised properly and competently, shows just how much medecine and police investigation have in common.

There's the additional issue of statistical 'certainty.' Let us say that a given DNA sample--done correctly, handled responsibly--uniquely idenitifies one in a million people.

If you have two suspects, each of which has good evidence against him/her and a good alibi, then this DNA can definitely help clear up who is who.

But you don't keep a database in order to disabmiguate marginal cases. You keep a database so you can troll through it. And that "one in a million" suddenly looks like "250 Americans".

But the jury is going to be very easily convinced when you stand up and say "one in a million!"

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