Book Review: Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System


Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System by M. Chris Fabricant

“No one in America will ever know the number of innocent people convicted, sent to prison, and even executed because of the flood of rotten forensics and bogus scientific opinions presented to juries. In this intriguing and beautifully crafted book, Innocence Project lawyer M. Chris Fabricant illustrates how wrongful convictions occur, and he makes it obvious how they could be prevented.”

—John Grisham, author of A Time for Mercy

M. Chris Fabricant is the Director of Strategic Litigation at The Innocence Project, and the author of a new book on junk science in the American criminal justice system. Junk science is the term used by lawyers like Fabricant, and others, to discuss a set of techniques accepted by the courts with little scientific backing. 

If you are a fan of mysteries, and particularly of the CSI shows on TV, you may be surprised to learn that many of the techniques long used by crime labs, including those of the FBI, quite possibly do more harm than good. When rigorously  reviewed by research scientists, these techniques have been repeatedly shown to be without scientific basis, and are considered scientifically unreliable and without merit. 

In his book M. Chris Fabricant spends quite a bit of time on the techniques of “bite mark analysis and comparison”. Bite mark analysis is one of the forensic techniques first called into question by  the National Academy of Sciences Hearings requested by Congress in 2006. When the Academy issued their report in 2009, they included these 38 words which in Fabricant’s telling moved the debate on junk science into the criminal court system: “Among existing forensic methods, only nuclear DNA analysis has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between an evidentiary sample and a specific individual or source.” 

Those 38 words, Fabricant says, challenged a century of legal precedent. Tens of thousands of people have been convicted based on “matching” techniques of hair samples, bullet marks, bite marks, tire treads, even fingerprints - none of which can show a clear scientific basis to support the assumed certainty of their matching. There has been no scientific experimentation conducted to  demonstrate that these techniques can accurately and repeatedly show that the matches they make are accurate. 

Many of these matching techniques rely on training and technique, which is not necessarily a guarantee of their effectiveness. At one point in the book Fabricant makes the point that astrologists also train and spend years honing their technique. Even so, their predictions are not valid, and are generally vague or wrong, because the underlying practice has no scientific basis. That is the same case with all these matching techniques.

Even despite the NAS report, and a follow up report in 2016 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology which reached similar conclusions, bite marks and other matching evidence remain admissible in criminal courts in all fifty states, and “expert witnesses” continue to train and hone their techniques.

Over the course of the book we follow the evolution of the criticism of these techniques, and also follow three cases that Fabricant was involved in through his work with the Innocence Project. In those three cases, innocent men wrongly convicted on the strength of these techniques were exonerated. Given the numbers convicted on the basis of these junk science techniques, one wonders how many more there are.

This was a very interesting, and eye-opening look at how junk science in our criminal justice system continues to be used to convict the innocent. It will leave you frustrated at the state of our justice system.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

NOTE: I received a promotional copy of this book from Akashic Books and LibraryThing, and am voluntarily providing this review. The book was published April 5th, 2022.

The Innocence Project: While the non-profit may not be as much in the news these days as at their founding back in the 1990s, they are still working every day to free the innocent, and push for reform of the US criminal justice system, in order to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place. 

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Title: Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System

Author: M. Chris Fabricant

Publisher: Akashic Books

Publish Date: April 5, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781636140308

Publisher’s List Price: $22.47 Hardcover (as of 08/2022)