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The Role Bias, Police Influence Can Play In Death Examinations

The nation’s death investigation system, a patchwork of medical examiners, freelance experts and elected coroners who may have no medical training, examines suspicious and unexplained deaths. Wrapped in a mantle of scientific authority, its practitioners translate the complexities of disease, decomposition, toxicology and physics into simple categories like accident, homicide or death by natural causes, setting in motion the justice system’s gravest cases and wielding tremendous influence over juries. Yet these experts are far from infallible, the New York Times reports. As forensic science faces scrutiny about its reliability, the science of death has been roiled in the past year with questions about whether the work of medical examiners is affected by racial bias, preconceived expectations and the powerful influence of law enforcement. A study last year in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found evidence of cognitive bias when 133 forensic scientists were presented with identical medical evidence in hypothetical cases involving child deaths. The deaths were more likely to be ruled an accident if the child was white and the caregiver was a grandmother; they were more frequently ruled a homicide when the child was Black and being cared for by the mother’s boyfriend.

The study touched on the essence of the debate over forensic pathology. It showed that judgments that ought to be based on science can become clouded by prejudice when medical examiners allow their findings to be affected by information that is not medically relevant. Many leaders in the field insist that medical examiners are obligated to consider the totality of the case before them, including statistics showing that boyfriends are more likely than blood relatives to commit child abuse. The new research was met by an explosive backlash. The National Association of Medical Examiners complained that the study had been poorly designed and improperly conducted. An association member claimed the paper would do "incalculable damage to our profession." Critics say that a reluctance to admit the possibility of bias, combined with a lack of diversity in the profession and a traditionally cozy relationship with law enforcement, can increase the chances of racial disparities when medical examiners err. A string of Black and Latino defendants have been freed in recent years, some from death row, after the autopsy findings that had helped convict them were disproved. Over the years, the most commonly cited source of bias in forensic pathology has been law enforcement influence, in part because in some places police detectives are routinely present during autopsies.

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