Shoddy Forensic Science: Fact and Fiction

By Stephen Lowman

While most of Washington was preparing yesterday for President Obama's speech to Congress on health care, a handful of Senators and a crowd of thriller enthusiasts were pondering a more ghoulish subject.

At the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, author Kathy Reichs -- whose books inspired television's "Bones" series -- was holding forth on "The Magic of Forensics and Fiction." On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee was engaged in a hearing into how to improve U.S. forensic science.

So much talk about so repulsive -- and fascinating -- a subject. Both Reichs and the Judiciary Committee are concerned about shoddy forensic science. Reichs' new book, "206 Bones" (Scribner), features a rogue forensic scientist lacking proper certification who sabotages the work of the novel's star, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

(Jay Paul/For The Washington Post)

In her talk before her fans, Reichs bemoaned the real-world existence of these rogues who lack real forensic training and no certification from an accredited organization. It particularly galls her because she herself is a forensic anthropologist. She dedicates her novel to all her colleagues who have received forensic board certification.

But lest the gore be minimized by her serious message, Reichs made sure her fans got what they came for. In her power-point presentation, she covered topics such as "Why do people dismember bodies?" and "When you cut up a body, where do you put the pieces?"

To the second question, Reichs -- who splits her time between Montreal and Charlotte -- offered this: "Canadians are crazy about hockey bags."

She kept her audience enthralled with other tidbits -- such as, did you know:

Flies will arrive on a body within minutes of death?

Scientists are working on the question: In the absence of a body, can you get DNA from the maggots that feasted on it?

The "soup" that leaks out of a decomposing body is known as volatile fatty acids?

If you are feeling very sick at home and have a dog, make sure to fill up Fido's dog bowl because he will begin scavenging when you kick the bucket?

Over at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) opened the committee hearing by noting, thanks to TV shows, many believe forensic work is conducted in sleek, ultramodern labs and the evidence produced is infallible. He provided statistics galore to show that such accuracy was far from the case.

"Forensic science is hot," concurred Reich. "The question is: who is actually a competent forensic expert?"

It's a matter the Judiciary Committee and Reichs's fans are exploring together.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 10, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Even 'competent forensic experts' are working on a because-they-said-so basis, subject to contradiction by a duelling competent-forensic-expert or, in the case of an indigent defense, free to railroad whoever they want. None of that stuff is science, none of it has been evaluated to the extent of estimating confidence intervals around results. It's all fabricated, when you get down to it. Except for DNA, which is fully quantified in terms of error rate at every step. Although even then malfeasance at any step is still possible.

Posted by: HardyW | September 10, 2009 1:59 PM

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