By David A. Harris, Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Research, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
The news everywhere today is full of headlines like “DNA Cracks Cold Case.” Popular culture is topped by television programs like CSI, in which police are more likely to use test tubes and high-tech gadgetry than guns and handcuffs to solve crimes. The bad guys better watch out: science is now the handmaiden of law enforcement. And with that kind of partnership, criminals don’t stand a chance.
But my new book, Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012), exposes this picture for the myth that it is. Aside from DNA and analytical chemistry, police and prosecutors usually resist science, sometimes very vocally. This scientific work concerns the basics of how police gather the evidence that prosecutors use in court every day: eyewitness identifications, suspect interrogations, and basic kinds of forensic evidence, like fingerprint analysis, and hair and fiber identification. This science has been peer reviewed and published and replicated for years – sometimes for decades. It tells us not only what the problems are in these basic areas of investigation, but how to fix them. And yet, there is resistance to re-calibrating our police and prosecutorial practices so that they are consistent with the best of what science can teach us. The question at the heart of Failed Evidence is why. If we understand where that resistance comes from, we can find ways to overcome it, so that we can stop convicting the innocent, and get the real guilty parties off the street.