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Misconduct in the Forensic Science Community Reveals Urgent Need for Greater Oversight

by Kevin Bliss

The U.S. has recently experienced a spate of convictions being overturned because of forensic science misconduct, according to Jessica S. Henry, associate professor, Department of Justice Studies, Montclair State University. It was not the science that was at issue but the “so-called experts” not doing their job properly.

In an article Henry wrote for the website, she stated that we have become dependent upon the perceived infallibility of courtroom science and influenced by television crime dramas. In truth, however, the forensic science is about as fallible as the humans who perform it. “For someone who teaches and writes and teaches about wrongful convictions, I know that misconduct by forensic scientists can lead to injustices,” she said. 

“When scientists lie in the criminal justice system, innocent people suffer.”

Henry cited a number of recent scandals in forensic science to support her claims. She mentioned Sgt. Marc W. Dennis of the New Jersey State Police Drug and Alcohol Testing Unit who falsified state documents claiming he had recalibrated and certified the accuracy of Alcotest machinery — breathalyzers used by police to test for the legal limit of a person’s blood-alcohol content. Because Dennis did not actually perform the necessary twice-a-year calibrations, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in December 2018 that 20,000 cases must be reviewed, many of which will likely be dismissed.

Forensic lab scientist Annie Dookhan of Massachusetts admitted in 2012 to falsifying drug tests in 24,000 cases.

Another forensic scientist in Massachusetts, Sonja Farak, was stealing the drugs she claimed to be testing for her own personal use, calling into question the convictions in 11,000 cases.

Nina Larsen of Oregon also stole the drugs she claimed to be testing, affecting 2,500 cases.

John Salvador from a forensic lab in Texas falsified the results of drug tests in thousands of cases.

And the list goes on. Henry said there are plenty of reasons someone commits misconduct in forensic science, such as greed, laziness, or career advancement. The end result is it affects the integrity of the entire judicial system. “When the system goes awry, guilty people go free, innocent people are wrongfully convicted, confidence in the criminal justice system is shaken, and taxpayers carry the significant financial burden of cleaning up the mess left behind,” she stated.

Henry said it was the absence of proper oversight in the field that led to the string of abuses that have recently occurred. She quoted a 2009 report from the U.S. National Research Council noting the need for forensic scientist certification, lab accreditation, and separation of forensic labs from under the purview of the law enforcement agencies they serve. The U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said an independent oversight commission is also needed.

Henry closed her article with: “Misconduct may not ever be entirely preventable. But when life and liberty are on the line, as they are in every criminal case, I’d argue that states should be ever-diligent in adopting measures to identify and prevent misconduct, and in ensuring reliability of forensic testing, analysis and results.” 



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