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Is forensic science really as infallible as we're led to believe?

As so many of our Columbia readers know, forensic evidence can have a very significant impact on any criminal case. Many people around Missouri and across the United States consider this type of evidence to be perfect -- infallible. Oftentimes, when it is presented during trial, people take the scientist's word -- and their evidence -- at face value. Rarely ever do people question whether or not the evidence could be misleading or worse, entirely faulty.

But as a 2009 report conducted by a National Academy of Sciences committee points out, perhaps we should be taking a closer look at the techniques used to collect this type of evidence and ask ourselves a very important question: is forensic science really as infallible as we're led to believe?

As was pointed out in 2014 Slate article, there are a lot of problems facing the field of forensic science that may make it less reliable than we otherwise believe it to be. One thing working against forensic science is the fact that few methods have been peer-reviewed to ensure that the best methodology is being used or that the results are scientifically sound.

Another thing working against forensic science is the fact that analysts may already have a bias before performing tests. Likening it to the movie "Inception," the author of the Slate article explains that "analysts are unconsciously convinced of their conclusion before their experiment even begins," which may result in a skewed or faulty analysis that could lead to wrongful convictions.

But the biggest thing working against forensic analysts is the fact that many labs are run by local law enforcement instead of the federal government. Aside from the possibility of having little funding, these labs often rely on their own methodologies and "best practices" that are not standard across the nation. As the National Academy of Sciences committee explains, we need guidelines in order to "ensure quality and consistency" across all forms of forensic science in every state.

Because the court system places so much stock in forensic evidence, analysts owe it to the entire nation to use techniques that will deliver accurate results every time and as well as ensure that those who are on trial are receiving the fair trial afforded to them by the Constitution.

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