By Sheila Pursglove
It sounds like the TV series “CSI” or “Bones,” or a Patricia Cornwell novel – microscopic hair analysis, bite mark identification, fingerprints, and voice spectography.
But sometimes these time-honored methods of criminal identification have no better foundations than ancient divination rituals, according to Erica Beecher-Monas, professor at Wayne State University Law School.
Beecher-Monas, author of “Reality Bites: The Illusion of Science Behind Bite-Mark Evidence,” and “Evaluating Scientific Evidence: An Interdisplinary Framework for Intellectual Due Process,” says that while scientific evidence is crucial in many civil and criminal cases, the question of what counts as scientific knowledge is another matter – including what is permissible use of genetic information, whether chemical exposure causes disease, and whether future dangerousness of violent or sexual offenders can be predicted. Faulty analysis deprives litigants of intellectual due process from judges and undercuts the proper functioning and credibility of the judicial system.
For instance, while it’s long been held that fingerprints – like snowflakes – are different, the problem with fingerprints is not only an absence of controlled studies establishing the uniqueness of fingerprints, but the inability of the fingerprint examiners to come up with a set of objective measures by which their opinions could be tested, she says.
“Even if a complete set of prints from 10 fingers might be different in each individual, we don’t have any tests establishing the uniqueness of fragments typically found at crime scenes –and cases like that of Brandon Mayfield – whose fingerprints were wrongly found to “match” those on the Spanish train bombing – that cast doubt on the assertion,” she says.
Peer review may become self-serving – forensic odontologists, for example, may publish peer-reviewed articles, but without objective standards, controls, and blind testing, their area of expertise remains an entirely subjective field.
“Unfortunately, this is true of most forensic science – fingerprints, bite marks and knife marks,” she says. “The major exception is DNA evidence.”
Beecher-Monas – who wrote “A Ray of Light For Judges Blinded by Science: Triers of Science and Intellectual Due Process,” and “Blinded by Science: How Judges Avoid the Science in Scientific Evidence,” amongst other papers, says she is currently writing more about the science behind testimony about pediatric head injuries – aka “Shaken Baby Syndrome” – and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The major problem with such testimony, according to Beecher-Monas, is the lack of empirical basis for concluding that the baby died of inflicted injuries rather than of natural causes.
“A common problem is that the forensic pathologist fails to explain that many of the symptoms may also occur in normal, healthy babies, and that an alternative, innocent explanation that would account for all these symptoms also,” she says. “The science has changed and much of what experts have been testifying to as evidence of wrongdoing has been shown to occur in normal infants.”
Beecher-Monas, who teaches Evidence, Advanced Evidence, Corporations, Corporate Finance, and Securities Regulation, and an advanced seminar in Corporate Governance, has a strong medical background with an undergraduate degree in biology from Florida International University, and a Master of Science in anatomy and biochemistry from the University of Miami School of Medicine. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, she earned an LL.M. and J.S.D. from Columbia School of Law.
She has been a visiting professor at Florida State University College of Law and University of Miami School of Law; and previously was an associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Jacobson in New York, and clerked in the Southern District of Florida.
A 2008-09 Fulbright Scholar to China, she has served as outside peer reviewer for the National Science Foundation; organized a WSU conference on Democracy and Corporate Citizenship and an Interdisciplinary Conference on Assisted Reproductive Technologies; and organized interdisciplinary yearly conferences and presented papers in an ongoing series, “Law and the Brain.” In 2008, she participated in two Province of Ontario roundtables that reported on guiding principles for forensic pathology testimony in child deaths.
In recent work in the corporate area, she discusses the research on group decision-making in light of the kinds of decisions directors are called upon to make. She is currently writing an article on the role of executive pay in the current financial crisis.
“What ties the two strands of my research together is my interest in human decision-making processes, and the ways in which they can be improved,” she says.
Wayne Law School professor an expert on scientific evidence
By Sheila Pursglove