Fall 2018

The Uncertain Future of Forensic Science

Jennifer L. Mnookin

Forensic science is at a crossroads. In the last two decades, often-used forms of pattern evidence, such as fingerprint, tool mark, and bite mark identification, have faced significant criticism for lacking adequate scientific validation or proven reliability. Is this the beginning of a sea change, signaling the rise of a science-based, empirically grounded approach to these forms of evidence, both in the courtroom and in the crime laboratory? Or has the increased attention produced Band-Aids rather than meaningful and lasting cures? This essay argues that the current state of forensic science reform is both “half empty” and “half full.” Looking first at bite mark evidence, then at modifications in the language used by forensic scientists for their courtroom testimony, and, finally, at the creation and the elimination of the National Commission on Forensic Science, this essay argues that we have thus far seen modest and meaningful – but far from adequate or transformative – reform. Our best hope for sustained, substantial changes necessary for improving forensic science evidence within our system of justice requires the creation of another national commission or other institutional body, made up of both research scientists and other institutional stakeholders, and situated as to prevent “capture” by either forensic practitioners or advocates within our adversarial system.

JENNIFER L. MNOOKIN is Dean and David G. Price and Dallas P. Price Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Cofounder and Codirector of PULSE@UCLA (Program in Understanding Law, Science, and Evidence). She writes extensively about evidence law, expert and scientific evidence, and forensic science. In addition to coauthoring two treatises, Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony (David Faigman et al., 2016), and The New Wigmore: Expert Evidence (with David Kaye and David E. Bernstein, 2010), her recent scholarship has appeared in UCLA Law Review, Texas Law Review, and The Supreme Court Review.

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