The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law
Volume 16, April 14, 2016, pages 1-35
full text version

Forensic Science Identification Evidence: Tensions Between Law and Science

Sarah Lucy Cooper*

* Senior Lecturer in Law, Birmingham City University’s School of Law, sarah.cooper@bcu.ac.uk


Abstract

For decades, courtrooms around the world have admitted evidence from forensic science analysts, such as fingerprint, tool-mark and bite-mark examiners, in order to solve crimes. Scientific progress, however, has led to significant criticism of the ability of such disciplines to engage in individualization i.e., “match” suspects exclusively to evidence. Despite this, American courts largely reject legal challenges based on arguments that identification evidence provided by these forensic science disciplines is unreliable. In so holding, these courts affirm precedent that it is the adversarial system’s function to weed out frailties in forensic evidence, and find that criticism of the forensic sciences lacks sui generis qualities. This article provides an independent critique of relevant American case law, from which three themes emerge. These themes are (1) the law’s misuse of science; (2) law’s scepticism towards change; and (3) law’s narrow construction of rationality, which generates reductionist concepts, and divorces science from its social context. As such, this article shows how the American judiciary’s approach to this global issue provides a contemporary illustration of key institutional tensions between science and law, and offers some recommendations for reforms that aim to facilitate the legal process to utilize the most reliable forensic science evidence possible.

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