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A second look at forensic evidence

DNA, bite marks, hair samples. You've seen them all used in the courtroom TV shows as undeniable proof of guilt. It's physical evidence, something a jury can look at and connect to the accused. The problem is that it's not always gathered, identified or explained right.

Earlier this year Texas made the decision to bar bite mark evidence from court because here was no scientific proof that it reveals identity. Studies of hair sample convictions have proven errant in many cases, and there are situations where even DNA gathering has been called into question. Just because there's an expert testimony from a doctor, doesn't mean that it's right.

The issue

With help from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the state is taking careful measures that any forensic evidence that is used is truly scientific. That means evidence needs to be examined by certified experts, practice the scientific method and be accurately explained to the judge and jury.

In the past, that hasn't always been so.

The argument itself isn't that forensic evidence is inaccurate, but that's it is misrepresented or not properly gathered. For example, in a 1980s decision where a bite mark was a key factor, the dentist claimed "one in a million" odds, hardly a scientific figure. Often, it was a scientific concept, but it did not apply the scientific practice to prove the concept.

With judges determining admissible evidence, it was assumed that the white coat meant it was right. Otherwise, a judge or jury would hear a doctor's testimony of a possibility as meaning it was a fact.

The action

Not only has Texas changed how new cases are argued, but existing cases based on forensic evidence are being called into question. If there is "foolproof" forensic evidence, it needs to prove its methodology. Otherwise, it's junk science and junk results.

An experienced criminal defense attorney knows the inner workings of evidence and procedural tasks and can look beyond the charts or 3-D models to inquire how evidence was really gathered and if it has credibility.

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