Laboratory Procedures – Daubert and Forensic Science
Forensic science may help you keep a level playing field in court.
Have you heard of the “Daubert” ruling (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (92-102), 509 U.S. 579 (1993))? It represents a landmark Supreme Court decision that changed the acceptance of scientific data in the courtroom. Before it, pretty much anyone could testify as an expert if they simply knew more about a particular subject than a layperson (Frye Rule). That all dramatically changed with Daubert.
It is a given that there are flaws in some procedures used in today’s forensic laboratories. In addition, scientific results do not always represent absolute truth. There is not always a scientific answer even if scientific procedures are utilized. This allows forensic examiners the ability to reach qualified opinions and differences of opinions. Add to that the possibility that an individual examiner used poor technique or had a bad day, and you then develop an understanding of why Daubert became necessary.
Daubert forces a testifying examiner to meet certain criteria before being allowed to testify. In addition, trial judges have been given the responsibility of being the “gatekeeper,” allowing or disallowing testimony after evaluating the following five items:
- Whether the method consists of a testable hypothesis.
- Whether the method has been subject to peer review and publication.
- The known or potential rate of error of the technique or theory when applied.
- The existence and maintenance of standards and controls.
- Whether the method is generally acceptable within the relevant scientific community.
To date, Daubert challenges have been brought in cases involving fingerprinting, handwriting, ballistics, bite mark analysis, DNA and ink analysis. This has become such a big deal and potential nightmare for forensic laboratories, that some of the larger federal agencies actually have full-time employees who help trial lawyers prepare for Daubert challenges to their experts.
The evolution of the Daubert decision was due and it will undoubtedly serve the community well by ensuring that expert witnesses truly act as experts.