“If you expect a certain outcome, you are going to get it,” said Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Marissa Boyers Bluestine as she spoke about the dangers of cognitive bias during the Ethics and Forensics portion of the Forensic Science(s) in the Courtroom Symposium held on Friday, April 12, 2013 on Widener Law’s Delaware campus.
Bluestine’s remarks came at the conclusion of a daylong program filled with informative presentations on forensic sciences in the courtroom. Presented by the Widener Law Review
, the program opened with a welcome and introduction from Widener Law Review Editor-in-Chief Patrick J. Furlong and the professors who organized the event, John F. Nivala
and Jules Epstein
Anjali Ranadive, the President of State College, PA forensic science and legal consulting firm SciLaw Forensics, Ltd. spoke next, offering a primer on DNA evidence that covered some of the misconceptions about the science and the use of DNA evidence in court. In addition to covering how the process works, she also touched on some of the challenges that scientist face, and she cautioned, “We can only report what the science can support.”
Professor Cedric Neummann of the Penn State Eberly College of Science followed, speaking about “The Admissibility of Fingerprint Evidence.” After offering a brief history of the use of latent print evidence, he observed that there has never been a consensus criteria for fingerprint experts before discussing what legal counsel – whether the prosecution or the defense – should be looking for from a fingerprint expert.
Delaware State Police Forensics Firearms Examiner Carl Rone discussed the forensic science of ballistics and how he matches a firearm to a crime. He covered impressed tool marks and striated tool marks and how imperfections in a gun’s hardened barrel are transferred over to a bullet as it is fired. Rone also covered marks or features such as the random imperfections or irregularities produced by manufacture, wear from use, and wear from abuse.
The program also featured a second presentation by Ranadive about the identification, collection, and preservation of crime scene evidence as well as a view from the bench on the presentation of forensic evidence at trial featuring former Delaware Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Slights, III
The Ethics and Forensics panel featuring Bluestine concluded the program. Bluestine used the example of the murder of Riley Fox and the conviction of the girl’s father Kevin based on a false confession as an example of the dangers of cognitive bias in action and stressed that it was important to approach evidence with a fresh perspective and follow where it leads rather than looking to make it support an existing theory.
“When we are given stimuli, we have to interpret it, and you’re going to interpret it based on your preconceptions,” she said before urging that it was up to everyone involved in the criminal justice system to put aside that cognitive bias and look at evidence with dispassion and a desire to find the truth.