California Senate aims to limit 'junk science' in courtrooms
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Lawyers call it the CSI effect, the explosion of forensic science and criminal investigation, and in popular culture makes us think crime can be solved in the lab, but is this evidence as reliable as we've been told or is some of it even junk science, a bill promoted by the California innocence coalition now approved by the state Senate would make testimony based on disputed CSI techniques, inadmissible in court. And that would allow people who've been convicted using such evidence to have a basis for appeal. Joining me is Jasmine Harris, associate director of development and policy with the California innocence project. And Jasmine, welcome for the, and thanks
Speaker 2: (00:41)
For having me,
Speaker 1: (00:43)
The popularity of watching criminalists do analysis on crime scenes is all over our culture from movies to video games. How much of that has seeped into our courtrooms?
Speaker 2: (00:53)
I, I think it's completely flooded and inundated our courtrooms. Uh, I think that when you look at the makeup of a jury, these are folks that are watching plenty of TV and are certainly interested in what's going on in criminal courts because of these TV shows. And so these are the evaluators of facts that are coming into trials, right? These are the people who are watching these TV shows and then coming in and being jurors in these cases, assuming that if an expert testifies at trial, if certain scientific notions are presented at trial, that those are valid and backed by data and, and valid methodology. And that, that tends to just not be the case here in California and actually Countrywide.
Speaker 1: (01:35)
What types of forensic science have been found to be unreliable.
Speaker 2: (01:38)
There there's quite a laundry list so far. And just a few of the top of my head would be bite mark analysis. Uh, and this is the idea that you would look at a picture or the dation of someone's teeth, and you would match that to a supposed bite mark on someone's body. And this has led to hundreds of wrongful convictions in our country. We actually have a case out of our office of Mr. Bill Richards, who actually inspired the original, false scientific evidence bill that we are amending this year with Senate bill 4 67
Speaker 1: (02:13)
And other techniques like fiber analysis, even fingerprints have come into question. Isn't that right?
Speaker 2: (02:20)
That's absolutely right. And I think fingerprints is the most interesting because cuz I think that right behind DNA is the one that all of us as laypeople think is the best hard and fast indicator as to who might have done this crime, right? We were taught for a long period of time that everybody's fingerprints are unique and there's no way that you could have the same fingerprints as someone else. And we know that's not true anymore. Hair microscopy. One of the ones that you mentioned as well has come under great scrutiny and many of these sciences have come under scrutiny because of these groundbreaking reports that have come out from the national academy of science in 2009 and the president's council of advisors on science and technology in 2016, which is referred to as the PCAST report. These reports really blew open the issues with the forensic sciences that are being used in our courtrooms. And I think one of the things that we're really trying to get at with Senate bill 4 67 is a way for that information to be incorporated into our courtrooms.
Speaker 1: (03:24)
If this bill is approved by the assembly and signed by the governor, how would it change how forensic evidence is loud in court?
Speaker 2: (03:32)
So this bill is a post-conviction bill. So we we're really looking to practice this bill to remedy wrongful can evictions from the past. And, and this is important because of the 260 exonerations that we've had here in California since 1989, 15% of those included false science and 66% of those were given life sentences. People are put away for life under these flaw science. And so with, with Senate bill 4 67, what that will do is provide a way for people whose convictions occurred when a science was viewed and was used in a certain way that now we know shouldn't be used that way, that allows for this person to have that evaluation in the courts again. And one of the opposition pieces that we've heard is well just because somebody thinks that the science was flawed in their case, that doesn't mean they should get out.
Speaker 2: (04:29)
Well, that's not how our system works either. If the science was flawed in their case, if this bill gets through and the science was flawed in their case, what that means is their conviction could be reversed and they're just re all over again. And that makes the most sense because it's the current science and also taking into account the scrutiny of that science to then prosecute somebody. So this isn't a, a floodgate thing where we wanna get everybody outta prison who maybe had some flood science in their case. This is a very specific group of people that deserve to have this reanalysis of the science that was used against them.
Speaker 1: (05:07)
The bill passed in the state Senate by an overwhelming majority. What are its prospects now that it moves to the assembly?
Speaker 2: (05:15)
We hope that our, our friends in the assembly feel the same way as the senators. Do. We really pride ourselves on, on engaged with other stakeholders as far as building this language and making sure that it works for all parties. We spoke to the California district attorney's association. We talked to judicial council. They have all given us input on this bill. And so we, we're just really proud and, and hopeful that it'll move through the assembly like it did in the Senate.
Speaker 1: (05:40)
I've been speaking with Jasmine Harris as associate director of development and policy at the California innocence project. Jasmine, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
California lawmakers on Wednesday moved to deter the use of what a legislator called “junk science” in the courtroom and give those convicted with questionable expert testimony a way out of prison.
Senators approved changing the state’s definition of false testimony to include expert court opinions based on flawed scientific research or outdated technology, or where a reasonable scientific dispute has emerged over its validity.
Expert opinions that aren't based on bona fide research, peer-reviewed studies or other science would not satisfy the state's requirements for admissible testimony.
The bill by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener would allow people to appeal if they previously were convicted based on the discredited testimony.
“This bill gives judges stronger tools to prevent junk science from coming into our courtrooms," Wiener said.
The California Innocence Project, which sought the bill along with the Loyola Project for the Innocent and the Northern California Innocence Project, said flawed forensic science occurred in 45% of DNA exonerations and 24% of all exonerations in the United States. The groups investigate such cases and advocate for the release of those who have been wrongfully convicted.
The National Academy of Science has said jurors can be thrown off by what is known as the “CSI effect,” where jurors have unrealistic expectations of the reliability of forensic evidence from watching “CSI” and similar television shows.
The bill had no formal opposition from prosecutors or other law enforcement organizations. It passed, 30-3, sending it the Assembly.
But Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state parole board, said the bill is another effort by majority Democrats to ease criminal punishments.
“These are just more attempts to erode the justice system to ensure that justice for the victims of crimes do not see justice done, that individuals who have committed crimes have more venues to escape any consequences for their behaviors," Nielsen said.
GOP Sen. Andreas Borgeas also voted against the bill, urging a different approach to what he acknowledged can be a problem.
“Even a ham sandwich could be indicted," Borgeas said, reciting an old legal dogma. "You can get anybody to say virtually anything.”
Wiener said those whose convictions are overturned under his bill could be retried, if investigators have other evidence to prove their guilt.
“This isn’t about letting criminals get out of jail free,” he said.