We’re back with Kathy Reichs for the third and final case file from one of America’s leading Forensic Anthropologists.
In 206 Bones, heroine Tempe Brennan is accused of mishandling the autopsy of a missing heiress and a routine case swiftly turns sinister. Here, Kathy shares her views on the complicated relationship between science and the criminal justice system.
‘How many guilty have gone free and how many innocent have been convicted?’ This is a thought that troubles Tempe in 206 Bones, but the imperfect relationship between science and the criminal justice system is a cause for concern in the real world too.
Does science always strike with the unerring stroke of Excalibur? Is every expert a gallant champion for justice and right? In the hands of the wrong practitioner, science can become imperfect or impure or downright wrong. Even with the best intent, different practices have different degrees of certainty. We know we can trust DNA tests or a toxicology reports but when the evidence relies on interpretation – like analyzing a criminal’s handwriting – how sure can we be? What if an innocent person’s handwriting happens to match that of a wanted criminal and they go prison? And that’s not even taking malicious intent into account. Not so long ago a chemist in Texas routinely presented inconclusive findings as conclusive, altered laboratory records and reported scientifically impossible or improbable results. Hardly a gallant knight.
Innocent people end up in jail. Mothers lose custody of their kids. Perpetrators who should be convicted are acquitted.
What is being done? In the US a foundation called the Innocent Project has been specially established to vindicate the innocent. They’ve exonerated more than 200 people. Then there’s the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve put together a report highlighting malpractice and advocating change.
The bottom line is that until changes are made justice isn’t available to all.
The NAS have drawn attention to the fact that most forensic disciplines have no mandatory certification programs internally. They’ve exposed discrepancies in forensic science in federal, state and local law enforcement jurisdictions and agencies. How can we expect the same standards, the same thorough pursuit of truth if the law isn’t the same city to city, state to state?
206 Bones is the story of a scientist who wished to become the Grail Knight. Though qualified in one field, the individual aspired to much more. The result was disastrous.
Tempe and the NAS are right on the mark in their worries. Board certification must become mandatory in the hiring of scientists, and in their qualification as experts in court.
And existing boards must not relax their standards to accommodate all. Technicians are not scientists. The skill sets are different. Certification standards must remain rigorous to clarify this distinction.
Not perfect. But it’s a start.
What do I propose?
Proclaimed to all knights of the realm. Going forth from this day. To sit at the round table ye must:
Suck it up, take your boards, pass the king’s muster…’
More information on Kathy can be found on her website.
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