Lauren Krisai, Julie Baumer and Amshula Jayaram present on forensic evidence and wrongful convictions.
In January, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy welcomed three guests to speak about forensic evidence during our Issues & Ideas forum. The panelists included Lauren Krisai from the Reason Foundation, Amshula Jayaram from the Innocence Project and Julie Baumer, a Michigan woman who served four years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.
Jayaram talked about wrongful convictions that prosecutors obtained with the help of misapplied forensic science. Though only a tiny percentage of criminal cases depend on biological evidence for their outcome, an extraordinarily high percentage of them get it wrong. The Innocence Project has identified and exonerated 353 people who were convicted, in part, by misapplied biological evidence. Further, Jayaram said, a National Academy of Sciences study concluded that 1 of every 25 death row inmates is probably innocent.
Krisai followed up this stark picture with an important point: When forensic science is misapplied and it results in a wrongful conviction, there’s more at stake than the ruination of an innocent life. There’s the reality that the true criminal is still at large. She underscored Jayaram’s statistic that, in Innocence Project cases alone, the real perpetrator was only found about half the time. While blameless people were being wrongfully convicted and serving time on the basis of bad science, the true criminals had gone on to collectively commit at least 150 additional violent crimes, including 80 rapes and 35 homicides. This is a serious public safety matter that conservatives should care about, Krisai concluded.
The policy experts ended their remarks by calling for a commission to oversee the use of forensic science in Michigan’s criminal courts.
Baumer provided a moving account of her attempts to rebuild her life after being wrongfully convicted of shaking her baby nephew. Had a forensic science commission reviewed the evidence in her case, she said, it would have discovered her nephew had an obscure medical condition, and she would never have been convicted of harming him. While Baumer can file a claim for compensation for her wrongful conviction, no amount of money, she said, will be enough to recover the devastation wrought on her relationships, career and emotional health.
As the world becomes more data driven, problems like the misapplication of forensic evidence and its consequences become more pronounced. If we are going to allow the lives of criminal defendants and victims to turn on biological evidence, we must take at least the basic precautions to ensure that we’re getting it right.