Last September, after a Michigan State Police audit of results from the Detroit police firearms laboratory, criminal justice officials ordered the Detroit crime lab shut down.
The audit was ordered after an independent expert hired by a defense lawyer to review the laboratory's findings in a murder case disagreed with the laboratory's report that all fired shell casings collected at a crime scene came from one weapon.
The prosecutor then hired another independent expert, who concurred with the defense.
Results in 10 percent of the 200 cases audited were in error, a preliminary report concluded. The 10 percent error rate applied to cases that had already been tried, as well as to those awaiting trial.
University of Michigan law professor David Moran told The Detroit News that the 10 percent error rate was "shocking" and a "decent lab" would have an error rate less than 1 percent.
"God knows how many more of these cases are out there," Moran said.
The crime lab, which also handles DNA, fingerprint and drug evidence, was closed because of an unspecified "systemic problem ... likely to be an indicator of a severe problem that affects other forensic disciplines, as well," said the county prosecutor.
The prosecutor will re-examine convictions and acquittals where laboratory evidence was introduced, potentially thousands of cases over several years, at great cost to the state.
State police laboratories, which already have a backlog for firearms cases and DNA cases, will have to shoulder the Detroit laboratory's case load.
The justice system is braced for thousands of lawsuits and appeals.
I don't know what the problem was, exactly. The article didn't say. It certainly implies incompetence and/or wrongdoing on the part of many.
Why would forensic professionals do this?
I can't help wondering about pressure to perform.
When I was a kid, I loved the TV courtroom drama, "Perry Mason." Attorney Mason, played by Aaron Burr, always got the bad guy to confess on the witness stand.
Back then, some prosecutors thought the show led jurors to expect confessions and caused them to be reluctant to convict without one. They called it the "Perry Mason Effect."
Now, we have the "CSI Effect." In the popular crime show, some definitive piece of scientific evidence always turns up by the end of the hour, proving guilt and wrapping up the case.
While studies of large numbers of cases have failed to document a measurable effect of television viewing on conviction rates, some jurors, interviewed after trials, say they voted for acquittal because they heard only circumstantial evidence, not scientific evidence.
Prosecutors sometimes ask potential jurors if they watch CSI. They then "re-educate" those jurors by asking forensics experts to explain why scientific proof isn't always possible.
Might some criminalists, personally convinced of a defendant's guilt and frustrated by unreasonable expectations, feel pressured to produce? Might they go so far as to manufacture evidence because that's what people want?
email@example.comDr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.