In 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhough, Anna Vasquez, and Cassandra Rivera were accused, tried, and convicted by a Texas jury of sexual abuse.
The “San Antonio Four” as they became known were wrapped up in the child abuse panic driven by forensic science lies that swept the United States in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The McMartin trial is an excellent example of the sort of hysteria and allegations that these women faced.
“Expert” testimony played a central role in sending these women to prison for nearly twenty years, as there was no physical evidence to corroborate any of the bizarre allegations that were made against the women. At the trial, a pediatrician testified as an expert witness that the alleged victims showed signs of sexual abuse using a standard that has, since then, been debunked.
This week, however, the Four all got to walk out of a prison. Their convictions were overturned, due in no small part to to a new Texas law that allows inmates to ask for new trials when their convictions were based on forensic science that has since been discredited.
Much of what passed for expert testimony in cases that centered around satanic / ritualistic sexual abuse would be laughed out of court today. Yet, in states without such a law, people who were convicted and sentenced to long terms in prison on the basis of what is now understood as junk science are finding that our criminal justice system values finality over accuracy.
In fact, what passes in popular culture (and, unfortunately, courtrooms) for forensic science often has little actual science underlying it. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released sobering report on the state of forensic science, finding that there is little scientific reliability in most forensic disciplines (other than DNA analysis). Fingerprinting, for example, has for decades been commonly assumed to be infallible — but tell that to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney whose fingerprint was “identified” by the FBI at the scene of the terrorist attacks in Madrid and who recently won $2 million settlement as a result of the error.
Even when the underlying science is sound, the question remains: who watches the watchmen? A staple of pretty much any drug prosecution is the crime lab analyst's report that the powder that was taken off the defendant was, in fact, an illegal substance (as opposed to baking soda). The science of determining the chemical makeup of a substance is not in dispute, but problems remain.
Annie Dookhan, for example, was a state crime lab analyst in Massachusetts who was sentenced last weekon various charges stemming from her falsifying lab reports in tens of thousands of cases. The Dookhan case shows how easily oversight can fail at crime labs given that she got away with falsifying reports for nearly a decade.
A criminal defendant, when faced with a falsified lab report and a perjuring analyst, often has little recourse. They can pay for their own testing, of course, but securing independent testing (and an analyst to come testify on their behalf) can cost thousands. Even then, it just becomes a swearing contest between two analysts and the jury won't know who to believe.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is very easy for us to look back on the junk science that took years from innocent people in the 1980's and 90's and see it for what it is. I also think it is dangerous for us to believe that we aren't still susceptible to the very same pitfalls, though. In twenty years, what will be looked back on now as being so obviously pseudo science?
Right now the powers that be are charging people who are involved in accidents and have THC in their blood with DUI (or worse), despite the fact that THC in the blood may not indicate recent marijuana use or impairment. Today's forensic expert is tomorrow's purveyor of pseudo-science.