Popular television programs like CSI have led millions of people to believe that all crimes can now be quickly solved in the laboratory. Forensic scientists are the new crime fighters, and criminals cannot escape the tell-tale traces they leave behind at the scene.
But in the real world, it's a different story. In many cases, forensic evidence is found to be faulty. This has led to dubious convictions, and has sent some people to jail improperly.
In Tainted Evidence: Forensics on Trial, Nicholas Campbell tells four stories of prosecutions that relied on forensic evidence - evidence that proved to be either highly suspect or downright false. In one case, a faulty fingerprint identification led to the arrest of a man who was falsely accused of being involved in the deadly Madrid bombings of 2004. In another, a Saskatchewan farmer was jailed for starting a deadly fire that a leading expert says he almost certainly didn't set. Even the gold standard of forensics, DNA analysis, is shown to be subject to human error. A Houston teenager was convicted of rape and sentenced to 25 years, only to have the conviction overturned because of a false DNA finding.
Forensic science is improving all the time. But it's never perfect. There will always be a critical margin of error - a margin that can mean the difference between a lifetime behind bars, or walking free.
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