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Forensic science plays role in few Massachusetts criminal cases

The Boston Globe recently published an excellent report on the impact television forensic shows, such as CSI, have in the real-world courtroom.

In reality, a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer can frequently challenge the available evidence in many crimes — it is the defendant’s statements that are much more likely to be a problem. Television is Hollywood and real life isn’t. The vast majority of cases do not have DNA evidence, which is expensive and time consuming. Other “forensics” seen on television might be available to the CIA (and we only say might), but is not going to be used by Massachusetts law enforcement anytime soon. For instance, detectives are not going to determine what type of motorcycle a defendant was using during a robbery by matching the sound of its exhaust caught on surveillance video — which was an actual episode of a popular television forensics show.

In fact, the popularity of such shows can cause problems in a trial — particularly when jurors think such evidence should be available if prosecutors or the defense just used a little more effort. A 2006 study of 1,000 Michigan jurors found that nearly half expected to see some form of scientific evidence in every criminal case. Nearly 75 percent expected to see it in murder trials. Of even greater concern, is that people trusted such evidence almost blindly; a study of 1,201 California jurors found scientific evidence such as DNA or fingerprints, was considered far more reliable than testimony from police officers, witnesses or the victims themselves.

So it goes without saying that it is critical to select a Massachusetts defense attorney who has the knowledge and experience to challenge all manner of forensic evidence while convincing a jury of its relative value.

Meanwhile, a new study of 400 murder cases found that the presence of forensic evidence had very little impact on whether an arrest was made, charges were filed, or a conviction was handed down in court. Just 13.5 percent of murder cases had physical evidence linking the murderer to the crime scene or the victim. If you are a defendant without an experienced and aggressive defense lawyer, that is a truly frightening statistic. In other words, the state wants you to believe that more than 85 percent of murder defendants are guilty because prosecutors say so.

According to the research, biological evidence was found 38 percent of the time, fingerprints 28 percent of the time, and DNA in just 4.5 percent of homicides. Research yet to be released shows that forensic evidence also plays a minimal role in other types of crimes, including robbery and burglary. Forensic evidence is collected in less than a third of such cases and is submitted to the lab just a small fraction of the time.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences is questioning whether certain methods used in forensics are even scientific and is decrying the lack of standards and certification. Problems are commonplace: In 2008, Detroit shut its crime lab after an audit found a 10 percent error in ballistics testing; New York State Police have come under fire for overlooking evidence that a crime lab was fabricating data; and a San Francisco crime lab was closed after it was revealed that an analyst was allegedly skimming illegal drugs for personnel use.

Massachusetts hasn’t escaped problems. In 2007, the Executive Office of Public Safety found a backlog of more than 16,000 cases awaiting DNA testing. In fact, DNA backlog is a nationwide problem that has cost $330 million since 2004 and is one of the primary reasons an individual case is unlikely to be tested.

Michael DelSignore is a skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyer in Massachusetts, representing clients facing OUI charges, drug charges, theft and robbery charges and other serious misdemeanors and felonies.

The Law Offices of Michael DelSignore are conveniently located in Stoughton, Attleboro, New Bedford and Westborough. Call (508) 455-4755 for a free consultation, 24 hours a day, including weekends and holidays.

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