We need to fix forensics. But how?

There was much agreement on general problems: The courts have done a poor job of keeping junk science and dubious expertise out of criminal trials. The pattern-matching fields of forensics — in which an analyst compares a piece of evidence from a crime scene to a piece of evidence thought to implicate a suspect — are largely subjective, lack structure and standards, and are hobbled by cognitive bias. And the legal system is too reluctant to revisit and correct old cases affected by these problems.

When asked about the root causes of these problems, however, there was some disagreement. Some panelists have what could only be characterized as a fatalistic outlook: Our court system is incompatible with sound science, and we can only hope to minimize the damage. Some blamed our adversarial system, which they say isn’t always conducive to sound science. Others advocated for more adversarialism. There was also plenty of blame to go around — ill-informed judges, overworked and badly-informed defense lawyers, overly eager prosecutors, and under-educated jurors.

The respondents offered a wide array of ideas and some disagreement about the path forward. But a few proposals found support from multiple respondents. While there was disagreement over whether the United States should move toward court-appointed experts (as opposed to allowing the prosecution and defense to pick their own experts), most agreed that if we’re going to continue with the current system, defense lawyers should be given the same amount of money to hire experts as the prosecution, or at least enough money to hire their own competent experts. Several of the respondents pointed out that judges have a much better record of screening out bad expertise in civil cases, where all parties tend to be well-funded.