Forensic Scientists – Under Prosecution’s Thumb? (p. 2)

in Criminal Defense, on

In our last post, we started to tell the story of an assistant medical examiner in Minnesota who claimed the prosecution made specific threats against her after she testified for the defense. The larger context is a nation-wide issue with state-run forensic science agencies and their questionably close ties to law enforcement. This should sound all too familiar to North Carolinians after everything that’s happened with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

The threats made against the assistant ME were discounted by one representative from the prosecutor’s office almost at the same time another was sending an email to her boss. The email didn’t mince words, apparently. The county attorney told the boss that continuing to work for the defense against the wishes of the county attorney’s and the sheriff’s offices could cost her her job. Both women regarded these communications as legitimate threats to their livelihoods.

Their story isn’t unique. Other MEs say they have been badmouthed behind their backs and had their professional integrity called into question. Intimidation tactics and threats — including threats that they would lose their appointed positions — have not been uncommon either. All because they do consulting for the defense.

It goes back to the attitudes of law enforcement toward government-employed forensic scientists, MEs included. Police and prosecutors tend to think of them as members of the prosecution’s team. Think about the last time you saw a medical examiner on Law & Order testifying for the defense.

The scientists think of themselves as scientists, with a duty not to one side or the other, but to the truth. The National Association of Medical Examiners backs them up, at least in theory. The organization’s standard practice is that death investigations be conducted by independent MEs, not members of the prosecution’s team.

The truth is, too, that there just aren’t enough medical examiners — that is, board-certified forensic pathologists — to go around. If MEs aren’t independent and cannot testify for the defense, the defense will be a definite disadvantage. So much for a fair trial.

More to come.

Resource: ABA Journal “CSI Breakdown” 11/2010