Frontline Investigates the State of Forensic Science in “The Real CSI”

Is the forensic science used in the courtroom reliable? The PBS documentary series Frontline makes an attempt at answering this question in an episode entitled: “The Real CSI.”

I cannot recommend this episode enough.

Watch The Real CSI on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Also, the producers of this episode hosted a live chat for viewers to ask some follow-up questions (I’m sorry I missed it). Here is the archive from the chat.

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  • Chris Byrne

    I watched the show realtime; and the only thing I can say is, they didn’t go far enough.

    I would like to have seen them show the multidecade fraud the FBI perpetrated in “ballistic trace metals analysis”; the pseudoscience of matching the metals of a bullet, to other bullets, from the same production run, or even the same box.

    It is of course impossible, and always has been. In independent blind testing, they found that FBI examiners could not correctly and positively identify any sample more than 25% of the time, and when they did they could not repeat the same results twice, EVER. They had a ZERO percent success rate.

    I would also like to have seen them take down the pseudoscience of forensic ballistics.

    Again, independent tests have shown that in most cases, fired bullets cannot be positively matched to a single weapon, with consistently repeatable results.

    Essentially, they can say that a bullet is consistent with the firearm in question, and no better. They can’t even identify make and model in many cases, because many firearms are so similar to each other.

    Matching brass casings is similarly inconclusive; and again blind tests have shown a less than 35% repeatable correct matching rate.

    I would really love for them to have brought up the long term, PROVEN record of government crime labs DELIBERATELY falsifying evidence and giving false testimony, in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, New Orleans etc…

  • Stephen Littau

    They did touch on ballistics but didn’t go into too much detail. I remember you posting something about this some time back but I don’t recall the post title (otherwise I would have linked it in the related posts). Up until I read your post, I too assumed ballistics could be matched to a firearm to the exclusion of all others. This is a notion that needs to be dispelled.

    I think the most important thing about this program was that maybe viewers (i.e. potential jurors) will greet forensics with more skepticism.

  • Norm Nelson

    Thanks for this reference it was a very enlightening experience for me. After watching I went to where their home page is in the midst of a “circle the wagons” maneuver. It’s unfortunate that a so called science based organization reads more like a lawyer based spin room. ohh.. they have a comments section too. Juicy.

  • Stephen Littau

    Norm, I think that’s true of all the sciences that depend on government funding (global warming being another example) or otherwise interact with government institutions. People in government want certain results they can point to so they can argue that the science supports their argument. In the case of the crime labs, most of these labs are run by the government and report to the government. Can you say conflict of interest?