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A kidnapper crept toward the New Jersey home of Charles and Anne Lindbergh on the night of 1 March 1932. He scurried up a homemade ladder to the second floor nursery and snatched the Lindbergh's 20month-old son. The New Jersey State Police hunted for clues to the criminal's identity. They found shoe prints under the nursery room and two sections of the kidnapper's broken ladder. The kidnapper had left a ransom note, the first of many demands. A baby's sleeping suit accompanied the seventh ransom note to confirm authenticity. On May 12, a trucker stumbled across a decomposed body of a small child partially buried about five miles from the Lindbergh home. The child had died in early March, a coroner reported.

In their search for clues, the state police relied upon medical and science experts outside their organization. Dr. Erastus Mead Hudson, a New York City physician, who had learned about fingerprinting at Scotland Yard, used silver nitrate to uncover fingerprints on the kidnapper's ladder. Two New Jersey private labs scrutinized the baby's sleeping suit: the E.R. Squibb Laboratories of New Brunswick and the Albert E. Edel Chemical and Toxicological Laboratory in Newark. Edel lab scientists also examined the recovered bones and concluded that the remains could have come from a 20-month old child.

When the police needed a comparison of hair samples from the corpse and the Lindbergh baby's hair, they had a choice of two US scientists who performed hair analysis: Edward Oscar Heinrich and Luke S. May, private criminalists working on the West Coast. The state police turned to the nearby Edel Lab for help instead. They had to look farther afield for an analysis of tool marks on the kidnapper's ladder. For that they called upon Arthur Koehler of the US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

America's forensics system, the part of our criminal justice system responsible for scientific examinations of crime-scene evidence like fingerprints and DNA, is rife with errors. Some mistakes, like botched tests or erroneously interpreted results, are inevitable. But current error rates are needlessly high. The most recent comprehensive study of crime lab proficiency, published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1995, analyzed the tests administered by the Forensic Sciences Foundation and Collaborative Testing Services as a part of the accreditation process. For many forensic disciplines, including the analysis of fibers, paints, glass, and body fluid mixtures, the rate of incorrect matches between recovered evidence and a reference sample exceeded 10 percent.

The best-performing group of disciplines, which included "finger and palm prints, metals, firearms, and footwear," had error rates at or above 2 percent. The first item on that list is especially important: False fingerprint identification usually leads to a false conviction, because of the prestige of fingerprint evidence and its undeserved reputation for infallibility. With 238,135 requests for latent fingerprint comparisons in 2002 alone, a false positive error rate of 2 percent implies up to 4,800 false convictions or guilty pleas made in hopes of a lighter sentence each year in the U.S., 1,700 of them in felony cases. (The number of improperly matched fingerprints is not completely clear. A 2005 study of fingerprint analysis suggests that the false positive rate may now be as low as 0.8 percent. But another recent study suggests it could exceed 4 percent.)

Confronted with such statistics, policy makers usually call for greater oversight-that is, finding a governmental body to watch over forensics and make sure everyone does his or her job right. In the current climate, that certainly would help. But the core problem with modern forensics isn't an absence of oversight. It's monopoly. Once evidence goes to a given lab or facility, it is unlikely to be examined by any other lab or facility. That increases the chances that a mistake will slip through undetected. With the right reforms, we can break down that monopoly and create a working system of checks and balances.

A jurisdiction should contain several competing forensic labs. To the extent that it's feasible, some evidence should be chosen at random for multiple testing at other labs. The same DNA evidence, for example, might be sent to three labs for analysis. The forensic scientist would not know when a given piece of evidence was being examined by another lab. For fingerprints, multiple examinations should be routine. If the rate of false positive fingerprint error is 2 percent, triplicate examinations would eliminate 96 percent of false felony convictions due to misidentified fingerprints.

Coroners and forensic scientists often have a pro-police bias, thinking of themselves as a part of the prosecution team. To establish their independence from police and prosecutors, crime labs should be organized by the courts, not the cops. Statistical review would lead to improved quality control. For example, if a given lab produces an unusually large number of inconclusive findings, its procedures and practices should be examined by an officer of the court.

When conducting forensic analyses, coroners and forensic scientists should be shielded from what psychologists call "domain-irrelevant information." Knowing whether the case at hand is, for example, a murder or a burglary exposes a fingerprint examiner to a powerful unconscious bias: The emotional nature of a murder case tends to make the scientist eager to get a killer off the streets and more likely to declare a match. In a 2006 study by researchers at the University of Southampton, domain-irrelevant information doubled the error rate of experienced fingerprint examiners.

Although forensic science decides many criminal cases, we do not have a right to forensic counsel similar to our right to legal counsel. Just as an indigent defendant has a right to the help of a qualified attorney, an indigent defendant should have the right to the help of a scientist qualified to interpret forensic analyses.

An indigent suspect on trial should also have the right to select his own forensic counsel and use a government-issued voucher to pay for it. The forensic scientist who accepts the case would later redeem the voucher at the courthouse, receiving his paycheck from an officer of the court. Such a system would give forensic counselors to the poor an incentive to provide high-quality services.

A forensic scientist who conducts a blood test, for example, should not say whether the test excludes the suspect. The interpretation of the test should be made by other forensic scientists. When a lab report comes back, it should be transmitted to two forensic scientists-one representing the prosecution and one representing the defense-for interpretation. Combined with public funding of forensic experts for defendants who cannot afford them, this will make it less likely that errors of interpretation will go unchallenged.

Private labs are subject to civil liability and administrative fines for poor performance. They therefore have stronger financial incentives than publicly owned enterprises to provide good and reliable work. Labs should be accredited by groups such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors' Laboratory Accreditation Board, and they should have routine procedures to measure variables related to quality and a planned system of review to allow those procedures to be updated regularly.

The extra cost of multiple forensic tests is dwarfed by the savings associated with reduced jail time for the wrongly convicted. For example, the $100 cost of a fingerprint examination is one one-thousandth of the cost of incarcerating a wrongly convicted felon who has been given the average sentence of almost five years.

In Federalist No. 51, James Madison endorsed a "policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," in order "to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." It is time to make the private interest of every coroner, every medical examiner, and every forensic scientist a sentinel over the public rights.

The state police didn't have their own team of forensic specialists. At the time of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the vast majority of North American police organizations lacked a crime lab staffed by experts who could aid an investigation. Very soon, however, that would change.

The world's first police crime laboratory â€" supported and staffed by law enforcement agents â€" was the small lab belonging to Edmund Locard in Lyon, France. Locard studied under Alexandre Lacassagne, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Lyon, who advocated the use of science in the investigation of crime.

Three men inspired Locard to create the crime lab: Lacassagne, Hans Gross and Arthur Conan Doyle. German criminologist Hans Gross had observed failures of criminal investigations based on eyewitnesses, and urged the application of scientific analysis to reconstruct a crime. In his textbook, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook for Magistrates, Police Officers, and Lawyers (1893), Gross advised police to carefully examine crime scenes for traces of blood and fingerprints and to consult scientists of all specialties for a more accurate re-creation of a crime. Arthur Conan Doyle inspired Locard by writing the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Many years later, in a 1929 article in Revue Internationale de Criminalistique, Locard credited Conan Doyle as second only to Hans Gross for inspiring techniques of trace evidence analysis.

The application of science would revolutionize criminal investigation. The problem facing Locard was finding a place where he could practice scientific analysis. He read about Holmes and his Baker Street residence bristling with scientific instruments and thought: why not create a real crime lab?

From 1908 to 1910, Locard toured European and North American police agencies to glean ideas for the design of his lab. But he could find no police crime labs, no truly scientific detectives and little interest in the idea. In 1910, Locard visited Professor Rudolph A. Reiss, who had recently created the Institut de Police Scientifique et de Criminologie at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. The encounter spurred Locard into action. He returned to France and pestered the Lyon police force until they granted the use of two rooms at the top of a steep winding staircase in the attic of the Palais de Justice, the Lyon Law Courts building. The police also transferred two assistants from the Surete Nationale, the plainclothes undercover unit. Locard equipped his lab with chemicals, basic lab- ware, a medical microscope and a small spectroscope, all at his own expense. Locard's modest lab marked a transformation in criminal investigation.

Dr. Wilfred Derome, Director of Laboratories at Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal, shared Locard's interest in forensic science. In 1909, he decided to supplement his knowledge by studying under Professor Victor Balthazard in France. Balthazard was a professor of forensic medicine at the Sorbonne, and a pioneer in hair comparison analysis, forensic firearm examination and other aspects of forensics. When he returned to Canada, Derome urged Sir Lomer Gouin, premier of Quebec, to supply funds for a scientific laboratory. In 1914, Gouin announced the establishment of the Laboratoire de Recherches Medico-Legales, a small room above the city morgue. It was the first forensic lab in North America.

In 1923, Derome received approval to move to a more spacious location on rue St. Vincent. By 1930, this lab had expanded to include Director Derome; Assistant Director Dr. Rosario Fontaine, a student of Edmund Locard; toxicology expert Franchere Pepin, a technician; and a photographer to record crime scenes. Following the European model, Derome testified about all tests performed by himself and his staff.

Derome's organization differed from Locard's lab in one important aspect: it functioned independently from the police. Years after the establishment of the lab, Derome revealed that he had found it difficult to collaborate with police officials in the early days. Writing in a 1930 issue of the American Journal of Police Science, Derome said that "I believe today there exists so strong an impulse of public opinion toward a more rational utilization of technical proofs in the detection of crime, that no one would dare to revive the old hit-or-miss methods of investigation." Derome's unsympathetic view of traditional methods probably did not enhance his partnership with the police.

One of the United States' earliest successful practitioners of scientific criminal investigation was Luke S. May. In the same year that Derome established his Montreal lab, May founded a Salt Lake City private detective agency that combined methods of traditional investigation with emerging forensic science techniques. May's Revelare International Secret Service not only assisted private individuals, but also law enforcement officials and state prosecutors, who relied on its forensic expertise. The detective moved his organization west several times, finally settling in Seattle, Washington in 1919. His investigative prowess earned him the title "America's Sherlock Holmes" â€" a fitting name since May's decision to become a private consulting scientific detective had been inspired by the fictional sleuth's adventures.

Scientific detective Edward Oscar Heinrich began his career as a chemist and sanitary engineer for the city of Tacoma, Washington. During this time, he also helped the coroner's office and the local police. Like May, Heinrich taught himself the necessary skills to reconstruct a crime, including examination of spent ammunition, hair, blood and documents. In 1916, Heinrich served as Chief of Police in Alameda, a city across the bay from San Francisco. The new police chief trained his officers in the scientific gathering of crime scene evidence. Heinrich established a private practice as a forensic scientist in 1919. From his lab on the ground floor of his home overlooking San Francisco Bay, Heinrich used his scientific expertise to assist the local police and members of the public, while promoting the adoption of scientific methods by law enforcement.

May also urged police to use scientific analyses. While he served as president of the Northwest Association of Sheriffs and Police, the group sponsored the Northwest College of Criminology in 1923. Later named the Institute of Scientific Criminology, the college offered courses in scientific criminal investigation and systems of identification. May wrote two manuals for detectives that covered examination of crime scenes, and methods for preserving and analyzing physical evidence.

Berkeley police chief August Vollmer, who has been called "the father of American policing", believed in the importance of science to police work. "[W]e cannot ignore the value of a fully equipped, scientific police laboratory as an aid in the detection and apprehension of criminals and the prevention of crime," Vollmer wrote in a 1922 issue of the Proceedings of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "A single hair, a blood stain or particles of dust have been the sole clues that finally solved mysterious and perplexing crimes in the past." In 1916, Vollmer set up a small lab for the Berkeley police department. During his brief time as a temporary Chief of Police for Los Angeles in 1923, he started a police lab run by Lieutenant Rex Welch.

Roger Koppl. Breaking Up the Forensics Monopoly. Reason. November 2007.


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