Forensic Science

The Importance of Understanding How Science Works

Kudos to the Norwood, Massachusetts public defender’s office.  They, along with attorneys from the private bar,  successfully argued two years’ worth of alcohol breath test results were unreliable.  The unreliability of the results, the defense argued, renders them inadmissible to criminally convict people.  The court agreed, holding due to sloppy lab practices, one can never know the defendant’s actual blood alcohol concentration.

The Importance of Minimum Standards and Asking the Right Question

In testimony, the head of a Massachusetts state crime lab explained their office was unaccredited.  Further, employees convey the protocols for maintaining and calibrating the Alcotest 9510 by “word of mouth.”  Written protocols for maintenance and calibrationwritten-protocol do not exist.  Accredited laboratories require written protocols.  (Whether the protocols are scientifically supportable, as well as whether employees follow the protocols are separate questions.)  It is an all too common error for unaccredited laboratories to use their lack of accreditation as an excuse for the lack of written protocols.  This isn’t the first laboratory whose protocols – or lack thereof – were questioned by the defense bar.  Nor will it be the last.

In this particular case, the judge correctly observed, “It cannot be assumed that any particular calibrator understood or routinely applied the proper standards in calibrating the device.”  Consequently, according to the court (and good science), lacking “scientifically reliable” protocols renders the test results inadmissible “in any criminal prosecution.”  The court’s order excludes all test results, from 350 machines, gathered between June of 2012 and September of 2014.

Asking a Different Question

We applaud the attorneys in Massachusetts for bringing this to light.  Nonetheless, we must ask: “Why did it take so long?”  The answer, most likely, is as common as dirt.  In lab scandal after lab scandal, prosecutors have relied upon flawed forensic science work without asking enough questions.  Additionally, most defense attorneys don’t have the proper background to handle forensic science casework.

In cases involving eyewitness identification, lawyers, or their investigators, commonly go to the alleged crime scene.  They go at the same time of day, in the same conditions, to determine if a witness actually had a reasonable opportunity to witness the events in question.  In cases involving witness statements, lawyers listen to the recordings, rather than relying on police summaries.  The same amount of diligent double checking must occur in cases involving forensic science.  Failure to do so runs the risk of ongoing bad lab practices, as well as wrongful convictions.

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