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Los Altos Morning Forum presentation addresses sorry state of forensic science


Photo By: Richard Johnson/ Special to the Town Crier
Photo Richard Johnson/ Special To The Town Crier

Channing Robertson discusses how the results of a two-year study of crime laboratories astonished and horrified researchers.

Stanford University professor Channing Robertson, Ph.D., addressed the reliability of crime-scene evidence in an Oct. 17 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “Forensic Science: An Oxymoron?”

Robertson, professor emeritus in chemical engineering and the Ruth G. and William K. Bowles Professor in the School of Engineering, has testified as an expert in several high-profile trials related to toxic-waste sites, tobacco companies and intrauterine devices. His expertise led to an invitation to become a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Science, Technology and Law. He served on a subcommittee commissioned to evaluate the state of forensic evidence and testimony in the U.S.

The results of the more than two-year study of methods and crime laboratories astonished and horrified the researchers, Roberston said.

“We concluded that DNA analysis is the only common forensic technique (that is) based on a solid scientific foundation,” he said. “The rest are essentially empirical and based on individual judgment. Prior to this study, I had a different impression from watching television crime scene investigation programs.”

Robertson co-authored the NAS report, which called for a complete overhaul of the process of forensic analysis in the U.S. The March 10, 2009, report asked for valid and reliable testing, certification and accreditation, standard reporting, cross examination, research and education funding and elimination of the coroner system.

Robertson said the U.S. social justice system is based on forensic evidence, a safeguard to protect the innocent from criminals. The subcommittee researched the entire spectrum of common forensic techniques, including iris scanning, DNA analysis, fingerprinting, blood spatters, pry marks, ballistics and image analysis.

Only 12,000 employees working in 300-400 crime laboratories throughout the country are available to perform the forensic analyses on 3 million cases annually.

According to Robertson, nonforensic, unreliable identification methods include surveillance cameras, eyewitness accounts and lineups.

Many of those convicted based on inaccurate evidence have been cleared through the Innocence Project since DNA testing results became admissible in 1989, he said.

Robertson co-authored the “Reference Guide on Engineering” chapter in the latest edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, a resource used by all federal court and most state court judges in the country.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.com.

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