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Is forensic evidence a reliable burden of proof?

The standard in court is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a long-held standard that calls for certainty in conviction. Yet, many court cases use questionable forensic evidence in trials.

Forensic evidence is well known to those who watch court shows on TV. However, studies in the past decade are casting doubt about their reliability. Bite marks, hair identification and other familiar forms of evidence don’t meet the same criteria of certainty that scientists require in academic research. As further proof, The National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California Irvine keeps a report of people who were absolved of false convictions—nearly one-fourth of the list cites “false or misleading evidence” as a reason.

Similarity is not certainty

There is no room for error when it comes to criminal defense. Studies have found the following evidence unreliable in scientific labs, but some courts still allow its use.

  • Bite marks
  • Firearms identification
  • Hair identification
  • Burn patterns
  • Footwear markings
  • Tire tread patterns

Why do some courts allow forensic evidence?

As studies question the certainty of bite mark analysis or footstep imprints in the soil, judges and prosecutors don’t accept those results with the same enthusiasm as researchers. One of the most common arguments is that judges heavily relies on case law—using precedent established in previous cases—to set the standard. In addition, many prosecutors denounce the studies, claiming a conflict of interest on the research.

Reviewing the evidence

There are many reasons why criminal cases are dismissed: illegal search and seizure, self-defense, entrapment and, of course, innocence. In any case, the prosecution’s role is to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

In any criminal defense case, the outcome relies on the quality of the evidence. It’s important to review that evidence for accuracy so only credible information plays a role in your fate. If forensic evidence is inconsistent and often overturned, it cannot meet the burden of proof standard.

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