The Crime Lab in the Age of the Genetic Panopticon (Book Review)
Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series
21 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2017 Last revised: 24 Jul 2018
Date Written: February 2, 2017
"Scientific evidence really nails this man to the wall," the Harris County, Texas prosecutor told the jurors in closing statements. At trial, George Rodriguez claimed he was innocent and that he had been working a factory the day of the crime. The prosecutor emphasized, however, that the blood type of swabs taken from the victim showed that Rodriguez did commit the crime and that a hair from the crime scene matched him. But seventeen years later, the same hair was tested again, this time using DNA analysis, and the evidence cleared Rodriguez and ultimately led to the crime crime lab being shut down and recreated. The Rodriguez case illustrates why the crime lab has entered a time of crisis. I will discuss that case and the larger story of the transformation of the Houston lab, to introduce the first of three wonderful new books that I review here: Sandra Guerra Thompson's Cops in "Lab Coats: Curbing Wrongful Convictions Through Independent Forensic Laboratories." Second, I turn to Erin Murphy's book, "Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA," to explore Murphy's compelling account of why DNA testing is no panacea for these growing problems and may instead actually magnify some of them. These failings raise the larger question whether improved research to support forensic disciplines, national regulation regarding the quality and standards for labs, and constitutional criminal procedure to remedy the poor litigation of forensics in the courtroom can help to address the failings of our crime labs. I suggest that efforts to improve research, regulation, and criminal procedure are beginning to show promise, but that much remains to be done. Third, I will discuss Adam Benforado's book, "Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, which looks broadly at the role of social science and criminal law, but focusing here on cognitive research and expert evidence. Finally, I will discuss how advances in scientific research and technology will reshape the crime lab of the future, creating new challenges and opportunities for criminal justice.
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