Thursday, May 24, 2012

Medical Examiner Independence

This week the Supreme Court in Minnesota overturned the conviction of a 17 year old girl for the murder of her infant as a result of interference into expert witness testimony in her trial. The prosecutor was reprimanded by the State Bar for his conduct when he wrote a letter to the supervisor of a forensic expert stating that her involvement in defense work for a criminal case was a "conflict of interest." He has subsequently apologized.

I am glad to see the courts affirm that forensic science is objective and neutral and that its practitioners should be protected from influence and intimidation. Unfortunately, one overturned conviction in Minnesota is not going to correct a national structural crisis. In most cases, forensic scientists are not independent, but work for Sheriff Coroners: the same government entities that supervise law enforcement. Many forensic crime labs are under the auspices of police or prosecutors, and their employees are discouraged from sharing their expertise with defense counsel since they are considered "prosecution witnesses" and their reports are "testimonial," i.e. created to further prosecution. Many forensic scientists who train in institutions like these are not used to working with defense counsel and therefore their only contact with defense attorneys is when testifying, creating a clearly adversarial relationship. Although there are only about 500 forensic pathologists who are board certified practicing in the United States, many choose not to do defense work, and there have been several other cases, besides the Beecroft case, where experts who have done consult work for other counties or have come to opinions that were not politically popular were disciplined, restricted or retaliated against. We have a long way to go before we can correct the situation, and the first step would be for the major forensic and legal institutions and professional associations to step up and affirm that structural changes and policy changes have to occur on a national scale, as outlined in the recent NAS report on forensic sciences in the United States. Unfortunately, since law enforcement, death investigation and prosecutions are funded by each county, and local agencies are still trying to deal with the current economic downturn, I am not hopeful that there will be any significant changes occurring any time soon.