California Senator Takes on Wrongful Convictions and Forensics in Reform Bill

A California lawmaker has introduced a bill to clarify standards for forensic science used during criminal trials while making it easier for those wrongfully convicted to seek justice. 

(Yui Mok/PA via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A California lawmaker introduced a bill Friday that seeks to change the legal standards regarding expert testimony and forensic evidence before and after trials to make it easier for the falsely accused to challenge wrongful convictions. 

Senate Bill 243 by state Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is part of a larger slate of criminal justice reform bills that focus particularly on wrongful convictions. Wiener said inaccurate expert testimony and faulty forensics are the largest factors in the high rate of wrongful convictions, with approximately 200 people wrongly serving extended jail sentences for serious crimes like rape or murder in California since 1989. 

“The End Wrongful Convictions Act gets us one step closer to ensuring no one is sent to prison for a crime they did not commit, and it will allow those wrongfully convicted to seek freedom,” the state senator said in a prepared statement Friday. “Expert testimony should be based on accurate scientific facts and logic, and we need to stop allowing unreliable expert witness testimony.”

The bill makes clear that outmoded scientific research and technology once common in courtroom proceedings can no longer be part of expert testimony, while experts who do not use peer-reviewed methodologies to arrive at their conclusions will not be admissible into court. 

The National Academy of Sciences first highlighted the problem in a 2009 report that found the quality of forensic science varied widely by jurisdiction due to a variety of factors such as the quality of instruments or the competence of the people doing the investigating. 

One of the most notable conclusions of the report is that fingerprint evidence, once the gold standard for forensic scientists, can be prone to confirmation bias in that police find what they expect or want to find in the results. 

For instance, the FBI’s vaunted fingerprint unit matched prints found at the scene of the Madrid train station bombing in 2004 to a Portland, Oregon, attorney, but the prints were later confirmed to belong to an Algerian terrorist. The FBI agents at the time were investigating the attorney because he had recently converted to Islam. 

In California, Bill Richards of Mojave was famously convicted of murdering his wife primarily based on the expert testimony of a bite-mark pattern analyst who confirmed that a bite mark on the victim’s hand matched Richards’ crooked teeth. The Innocence Project later demanded DNA testing of samples collected from the murder weapon and found they matched neither Richards nor his wife. 

“Expert testimony can be incredibly powerful to a jury and sometimes it is the main evidence establishing guilt in the highest stakes cases,” said Melissa O’Connell, an attorney with the Northern California Innocence Project. “If we don’t scrutinize the basis upon which expert opinions rely, even when the expert’s own community has scrutinized their work, we run the risk of convictions being based on unreliable and unsound evidence leading to wrongful convictions.” 

Wiener’s bill isn’t solely about admitting evidence and expert testimony during the pretrial process but also seeks to facilitate those wrongly convicted to challenge their cases based on faulty forensics. 

“SB 243 will ensure that innocent people have an avenue to challenge bad convictions by looking at the faulty science used in their trials,” said Jasmin Harris, associate director of policy at California Innocence Project.

Wiener has been heavily involved in criminal justice reform. He also introduced Senate Bill 923, which clarifies the procedure police must use when collecting eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness misidentification is yet another factor in the wrongful conviction rate, he said. 

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