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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

CS – I Don’t Think So!

Reality bites.

A popular television drama, CSI, features attractive, intelligent, scientific crime fighters who solve complex cases from their laboratories. No matter how clever the criminal, these CSI techies are even more clever, and they always get their man.

There is something to forensic science. The Innocence Project has won release of people wrongly convicted of crimes by demonstrating that DNA samples taken at the crime scenes did not match the DNA of the wrongly convicted people. (We see this often in murder and rape cases in which there is a lot of public pressure for police to solve the crimes.)

Yet such methods are not confined to the defense. Prosecutors for years have enlisted DNA and other forensic devices to help gain convictions. For example, prosecutors used analysis of wood slivers to help convict Bruno Hauptmann more than 70 years ago in the kidnapping death of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Prosecutors supposedly solved the Atlanta child-murders case in 1980 using microscopic analysis of carpet fibers.

Police and prosecutors supposedly have the latest scientific tools to solve crimes, and the CSI people show how it works. However, we are dealing with government and – to the surprise of no one – government has managed to corrupt forensic science, creating tragic results.

For example, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation lab currently is mired in a scandal in which lab workers often withheld evidence unfavorable to the prosecution or botched investigations but never let the defense know what had happened. The results: People who had not committed crimes went to prison, wrongly convicted because of the lab workers corruption and incompetence.

Tainted Testimony

Even worse, Radley Balko of Reason uncovered huge swaths of fraud in Mississippi in which a forensic pathologist and a dentist gave expert prosecution testimony so tainted that most of it never should have been in a court of law. Yet even though the claims of the two witnesses were so bad that even the Mississippi courts ultimately revoked their status as “experts,” Mississippi prosecutors are demanding that they be readmitted to testify. Why? The “experts” would tell jurors what prosecutors wanted to hear, and most jurors simply can’t believe that government-approved witnesses might lie.

This all raises the simple question: Why are prosecutors so ready to embrace fraud? Is not “doing justice” part of their official job description? The answer is found in the nature of government itself.

As we all know, there is a huge gap between government statements and reality. Ever since the Progressive Era a century ago, Americans have come to believe that a government comprised of “experts” provides the best governance, a claim rebroadcast to them repeatedly in schools and the media. Thus the notion that we can trust the experts is ingrained in our body politic.

The reality is different. The Federal Reserve System and the U.S. Treasury are staffed by “economic experts” running the U.S. economy into the ground, yet when someone publicly questions the “let’s-provide-lots- of-liquidity” actions Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has taken in the past three years, that person is portrayed by the media as an idiot.

Unfortunately, the problem is more than simple incompetence. Government players are as self-interested as everyone else, and people in power often make decisions benefiting themselves. In the expert-witness scandals we see that prosecutors want convictions, period; they usually don’t care if the person on trial is guilty or innocent. If fraudulent testimony can win a conviction, then bring it on and let a jury decide.

Those attractive, incorruptible lab technicians on CSI might make good television, but they are a poor substitute for reality. For all the Progressive rhetoric one might hear about the greatness of experts in government, reality bites, and it bites hard. Those who have sat and currently sit in prison cells because of wrongful convictions can tell us something about the real nature of government experts.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.