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NIJ Report: The Role of Forensic Evidence in Wrongful Convictions

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Forensic scientists at the National Institute of Justice wanted to examine the errors in forensic science that have led to wrongful convictions. With hopes of avoiding future errors, NIJ enlisted forensic scientist Dr. John Morgan.

In his resulting analysis, Morgan concluded that forensic errors were a significant problem. “In approximately half of wrongful convictions analyzed,” Morgan wrote, “improved technology, testimony standards, or practice standards may have prevented a wrongful conviction at the time of trial.”

The NIJ report also discusses the gravity of these errors: “Wrongful conviction, or the conviction of a person for a crime that they did not commit, is one of the greatest travesties of the criminal justice system. As of 2023, The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded over 3,000 cases of wrongful convictions in the United States.[1] Organizations such as The Innocence Project work to free the innocent and prevent these convictions, so far exonerating 375 people, including 21 who served on death row.”

Morgan identified several key factors associated with wrongful convictions, including 1) poorly validated scientific standards or poor adherence to practice and testimony standards. 2) Overly complex forensic analysis. 3) Reliance on presumptive tests without confirmation by a forensic laboratory. 4) Use of independent experts outside the administrative control of public laboratories. 5) Suppression or misrepresentation of forensic evidence by investigators or prosecutors.

In addition, Morgan noted, non-scientific people within the broader criminal justice system can also introduce errors. Investigators or prosecutors, for example, may discount or ignore exculpatory forensic results due to their own biases.

When looking at these cases overall, Morgan saw signs of larger problems. Wrongful convictions, he said, should be seen as “sentinel events that elucidate system deficiencies within specific laboratories.”

The NIJ report suggested that developing and enforcing clear scientific standards would minimize wrongful convictions and boost public trust in the criminal justice system.

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