CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, May 28, 2015

White on False Science in Police Interrogations

Catherine E White has posted Comment: 'I Did Not Hurt Him...This Is a Nightmare': The Introduction of False, But Not Fabricated, Forensic Science in Police Interrogations (Wisconsin Law Review, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Junk sciences, such as bitemark analysis, fire science, shaken baby syndrome, and handwriting analysis, have been deceiving juries for years. Courts and the scientific community once regarded these forensic sciences as reliable evidence, but they have since been proven unreliable. Almost fifty percent of the cases overturned by DNA testing involve junk sciences. This Comment focuses on a subset of those wrongful convictions: cases in which the junk science deceived not only the jury but the defendant as well.

When the police discuss forensic evidence with a suspect during an interrogation, the suspect sometimes confesses to committing the crime in a manner consistent with the forensic evidence. If the court convicts the suspect and the scientific community later determines that the forensic evidence is unreliable, retrial is necessary. The unreliability of the junk science undermines confidence in the confession. This Comment surveys the empirical studies on false confessions and argues that junk science is a type of false evidence that multiple studies have demonstrated increases the risk of a false confession. In fact, junk science may be even more likely than other types of false evidence to spur a false confession.

Because a defendant convicted by junk science and an unreliable confession may be factually innocent, this Comment argues that these cases should be given a new, fair trial. This Comment suggests a number of pragmatic methods for courts to overturn the questionable conviction and provide the defendant with a fair trial, suppressing the confession as evidence. Rather than viewing a defendant’s confession as independent evidence of his or her guilt, courts should recognize that the unreliability of the junk science introduced during the interrogation renders the defendant’s confession unreliable as well.

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