<< BreakPoint Daily Commentary

Forensic Science and Justice

According to conventional wisdom, fingerprints have one thing in common with snowflakes: No two are exactly alike. Well as it turns out, neither snowflakes nor fingerprints are as unique as we believed them to be.

While being wrong about snowflakes might take some of the fun out of winter, being wrong about fingerprints can ruin an innocent person’s life.

That’s what almost happened to Brandon Mayfield, an attorney in Portland, Oregon. His story was part of a recent episode of NOVA on PBS. Following the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid that killed 191 people, investigators found a plastic bag containing bomb-making materials near the crime scene.

Using the best available techniques, they were able to obtain a partial fingerprint. The FBI ran it through its system and found that Mayfield’s print was, in forensic parlance, a 15-point match, more than good enough for a definite identification.

Mayfield was arrested and facing prison time. What saved him was that Spanish police matched the same print to an Algerian jihadist who was in Spain at the time of the attacks.

These kind of things aren't supposed to happen. Apart from DNA, fingerprint evidence is as good as forensic science gets. Yet in this case it almost cost an innocent man his freedom.

In response to Mayfield’s ordeal, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to study America’s crime labs. The NAS report found, as one expert on NOVA put it, that there wasn't enough “science” in forensic science.

Much of what goes by the name of “science,” such as fingerprint, ballistic, hair and fiber analysis, is highly subjective, often more art than science. Even when the science, as in the case of DNA analysis, is solid, poorly-run labs filled with poorly-trained and, occasionally, dishonest technicians, can call the results into question.

Stated differently, real life bears very little resemblance to what you see on television.

Yet thanks to the automatic credibility granted to anything labeled “science,” juries usually defer to the exaggerated and many times unwarranted claims of authority made by “expert” witnesses. It is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate how many innocent men and women are behind bars as a result. Recent disclosures about “allegedly skirting protocols and faking test results” by a single technician at a Massachusetts crime lab has called at least 200 convictions into question.

This is far from unique: similar scandals have occurred in at least a dozen states plus the federal system.

Here at BreakPoint, Prison Fellowship, and Justice Fellowship, we know how a conviction and prison sentence can devastate the lives of offenders and their families. And that’s when the offender was rightly convicted! Imagine the devastation wrought by a wrongful conviction.

As Chuck told BreakPoint listeners many times, the God-ordained purpose of government is to preserve order and establish justice. The kind of failures documented on NOVA and elsewhere call into question our system’s ability to do the latter.

Chuck would tell us that Christians need to speak up about these miscarriages of justices because if we don’t, few others will. We worship a Lord who was convicted on the basis of unreliable testimony. We honor Him when we speak for the least of these who have experienced the same.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: October 29, 2012

More BreakPoint Daily Commentary Articles