Baltimore prosecutors often complain that city jurors are unduly influenced by TV crime dramas. They call it the "CSI Effect," a reference to the popular television show where fingerprints, bullet fragments, gunshot residue, bite marks and other forensic evidence almost always match a suspect to a crime. That's not the way it is in real life, though plenty of criminal cases have been decided on just that kind of evidence.
Now, prosecutors in Maryland and across the nation will have to contend with a judgment of forensic science more troubling and problematic for the criminal justice system than any prime-time soap. After two years of rigorous study, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences has called for a major overhaul of the field because it lacks a basis in science. It's a damning critique of a profession without mandatory, national standards and where the quality of crime labs and technicians varies greatly.
The report by the National Research Council identified as problematic the affiliation of state crime labs with police departments - the practice in Baltimore and Baltimore County and at the Maryland State Police - because of potential bias. The one area of forensic science singled out for praise was DNA analysis, which panel members rightly pointed out evolved from scientific research and practice.