The CSI Effect
On TV, it's all slam-dunk evidence and quick convictions. Now juries expect the same thing--and that's a big problem
Dozens of coroners, crime lab technicians, police chemists, forensic anthropologists, crime-reconstruction experts, and other forensic specialists, meanwhile, have been fined, fired, or prosecuted for lying under oath, forging credentials, or fabricating evidence. It's hard to find anyone in law enforcement who can't recite a story of quackery on the stand or in the lab. Forensic practitioners say the popularity of the field may make things even worse, noting that new forensics-degree programs are cropping up all over the place, some turning out questionable candidates. "For some reason, the forensic sciences have always had their fair share of charlatans," says Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. "Because of the weight the analysis is now given, professional ethics and certification of labs has never been more important."
"Dead-bang evidence." One of the most infamous charlatans worked his magic just down the road from Houck at the West Virginia State Police lab. Fred Zain, who died in 2002, was a forensics star, a lab chemist who testified for prosecutors in hundreds of cases in West Virginia and Texas, sending some men to death row. No one ever bothered to look at his credentials--including the fact that he had failed organic chemistry--or review his test results. When two lab workers complained that they had seen Zain record results from a blank test plate, they were ignored. Zain was undone when DNA test results performed on Glen Woodall--serving a prison term of 203 to 335 years--proved that he could not have committed two sexual assaults for which he'd been convicted. Zain had told the jury that the assailant's blood types "were identical to Mr. Woodall's." After Woodall's conviction was overturned, in 1992, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ordered a full review of Zain's work. Its conclusion? The convictions of more than 100 people were in doubt because of Zain's "long history of falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions." Nine more men have since had their convictions overturned.
Forensic science experts say the solution is to tighten standards for experts and increase funding for crime labs. A consortium of forensic organizations is lobbying Congress now to do both. "In many places, crime labs are the bastard stepchildren of public safety," says Barry Fisher, a member of the Forensic Science Consortium and director of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department crime lab. Asked about the importance of mandatory certification, he adds: "I don't know if I would go to a hospital that wasn't accredited. The same goes with labs."
Some forensic experts, however, question the value of certification. Psychologist Steve Eichel, a longtime critic of what he calls "checkbook credentials," secured credentials for his cat--"Dr. Zoe D. Katze" --from four major hypnotherapy and psychotherapy associations. Critics have questioned the rigor of the American College of Forensic Examiners International, the largest forensic certifier in the country. Its founder, Robert O'Block, who was charged with plagiarism and fired from the criminal justice department at Appalachian State University shortly before starting the organization, strongly denies assertions that he runs a certification mill, blaming those accusations on disgruntled competitors; the Appalachian incident, he says, was retaliation for reporting improper academic practices.