“I have three clients on death row right now, all put there by junk science”

The United States operates the largest prison system in the world. Guilty or not, the state is an expert in locking people up. Many people in prison are innocent of any crime and many have even been executed for crimes they did not commit.

A new book, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System tells the story of some of these wrongful executions, as well as the sordid rise and eventual suppression of false “science” like bite marks and blood spatter analysis, which have now been thoroughly debunked.

The book is a perfect and oddly enjoyable way to consider what’s wrong with “true” crime. The author, Chris Fabricator, is a former court-appointed attorney and now Director of Strategic Litigation for the Innocence Project. His perspective on the entire criminal justice system is rare and fascinating. We spoke this week, and I started by asking him why he wrote this book.

Manufacturer: You know, I wanted to correct the narrative around forensic science that’s been perpetuated in popular culture – since the days of Quincy [a 1970s’ TV drama about an LA county medical examiner] throughout the contemporary ITUC-type shows – that take forensic science as infallible. And it was really important to tell our clients’ stories about the cost and impact of junk science in the legal system.

Maeva Higgins: And who do you want to read this?

Manufacturer: A mainstream audience, not lawyers, not law students, not judges, but jurors; people who are observers and interested in the criminal justice system but don’t really have insight. My clients’ stories are so incredible that they tell the story that needs to be told, without going into the details of the science.

Maeva Higgins: As for storytelling – your book made me think so much about the importance of stories, just as your clients’ stories are important to understand for the sake of justice. But the destructive power of stories also emerged.

Manufacturer: You know, I write a lot about cognitive biases and how storytelling plays on our biases to complete stories that connect dots that may or may not actually connect. There is a scene in the book where I talk about one of the hearings to determine whether or not the bite evidence is scientifically valid and therefore admissible. And you could see how undesirable scientists just tell stories all the way through the hearing to the judge and how compelling the stories are – even in something where we really should only be talking about science and storytelling shouldn’t be part of it.

It can be very corrupting to the truth-seeking process that is a criminal trial, but it can also be eye-opening to an otherwise disinterested public.

Maeva Higgins: There’s a boom in true crime media making people study more forensics – what do you think?

Manufacturer: You know, it’s funny, I was just at my wife’s family reunion in Minnesota. Big family, and there were a handful of young students who were there and some were interested in a career in forensic science. I asked a young woman why and she talked about her inherent fascination that comes from watching shows like Law and order and ITUC. I wanted to encourage her to pursue whatever passion she might have, you know, but I really wanted her to understand that this isn’t a voyeuristic business. This is the fight for human rights of our generation.

Maeva Higgins: What do you mean?

“Junk Science and the American Criminal” by Chris Maker.

Chris Fabricator: In our current system, there are those who believe that incarcerating 2.3 million people, as we do here at any given time in the United States, is an appropriate response to crime. And there are those who link mass incarceration to slavery, to Jim Crow, in a straight line. And that’s really the dividing line. So if you’re going to be involved as a forensic scientist, as some of these shows show, you have to understand that it’s nothing at all. You’re not going to be in a squeaky-clean white lab coat in a high-tech crime lab. You’re going to be in what amounts to a strip mall, with massive workloads, with massive backlogs for DNA testing and fingerprint testing, and gun testing. Beyond that — and this is one of the fundamental problems with forensics, not just here, but elsewhere — is that it’s often just one arm of law enforcement. .

If you work in a crime lab, you will be part of a system that leads to convictions and guilty pleas. It is not apolitical work. This should be the case, but given our system it is not.

Maeva Higgins: I find it interesting that science is supposed to always change and grow. But with the law there is a precedent that is set and it must remain so, does this mean that science and the law are fundamentally in conflict with each other?

Manufacturer: It is a central tension in our justice system that when a judge considers challenging the introduction of supposedly scientific evidence, the court is highly unlikely to consult the scientific literature to make that decision. The court is very likely to rely on legal precedent, and legal precedent almost never changes. But if we’re going to use scientific evidence, and we’re using it more and more all the time, we have to accept the fact that what we believe today, tomorrow might be wrong. And if that happens, then we have to be prepared to go back and correct the record and correct the miscarriages of justice. I’m trying to prevent that from happening in the first place, but a lot of what I’m doing is what I was doing in Georgia yesterday.

Conviction in Georgia

The day before our conversation, Mr. Fabricator was at a hearing for one of his clients in Georgia. Jimmy Rogers was convicted of the rape and murder of his neighbor in 1980 after prosecutors used bite marks, hair matches and a shoddy latent fingerprint as evidence.

Manufacturer: My client was put on death row by junk science. But it’s so hard not to ring the guilty verdict bell once it’s rung. The whole legacy of shoddy science is so hard to undo. I got a call last week from a lawyer about a new case where they’re going to try to take a cast of his client’s teeth to make a bite case.

Maeva Higgins: But isn’t it well known by now that bite marks are pure junk science?

Manufacturer: Yes, they’ve been debunked, but they’re still eligible wherever you go. And when prosecutors have a tough case, they’ll do shoddy science. I have three clients on death row right now, all put there by junk science, which is what keeps me awake at night.

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