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Chicago Judge's Ruling Sets Off Alarms in Firearms Analysis

A century of expert ballistics testimony and common practices of "matching" particular guns to spent bullets faces new scrutiny following an Illinois state judge's "earth-shaking opinion" in February that was the first to outright bar such testimony and whose impact is beginning to sink in, writes journalist Radley Balko at The Watch. The ruling in Illinois v. Winfield by William Hooks, a Chicago circuit court judge, was made on a motion by the Cook County Public Defender's Office to determine if there is any scientific foundation for the claim that a specific bullet can be matched to a specific gun. “There are no objective forensic based reasons that firearms identification evidence belongs in any category of forensic science,” Hooks ruled. He added that the wrongful convictions already attributable to the field “should serve as a wake-up call to courts operating as rubber stamps in blindly finding general acceptance” of bullet matching analysis.


Balko provides a lengthy of the law and science at issue, and traces the history of these fields over the decades. As in other pattern-matching fields, the science now faces stiffer headwinds, he writes. He adds, "For decades, judges took the assertions of pattern matching analysts at face value. It wasn’t until DNA testing started showing that some analysts had sent innocent people to prison that scientific organizations began to scrutinize these fields, and started testing some of their underlying premises." Too often, he writes, the science itself receives little judicial scrutiny if other courts have adopted it, giving legal precedent the benefit of doubt, which only fuels similar rulings. Hooks' ruling, which is not precedent and has yet to be tested on appeal, doesn't block police from using forensic firearms analysis entirely. "They could still use the class characteristics of guns and bullets to eliminate suspects and to help them decide which suspects merit more investigation," Balko writes. "If they still believe in the ability to pair a specific bullet with a specific gun, they can continue to use that information to guide their investigations as well. It just means that those investigations will need to find other evidence."

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