Brandon L. Garrett’s monograph Autopsy of a Crime Lab: Exposing the Flaws in Forensics (University of California Press, 2021) is a brutally honest look at the inadequacies of forensic science, its practitioners, and a legal system that legitimizes aspects of the field that seemingly have no genuine scientific basis. In this carefully and expertly researched book, Garrett, a former prosecutor and current legal expert, thoroughly examines the history of forensic science and the legal cases that brought its legitimacy into question. Contained within the book’s four-part structure is an inspection of fingerprint analysis, bloodstain pattern analysis, bite mark analysis, ballistics, hair and fibre comparison, and DNA. Utilizing his own field research as well as the research of a growing body of literature that is interested in exposing the grave errors often committed by many branches of forensic science, Garrett lays out seven recommendations for the future of forensic science. As he says optimistically in his introduction: “We can save forensic science” (9). By exposing the systemic problems that exist within forensics as well as offering research-based solutions, Garrett’s book begins the long process of redeeming this troubled field.
Garrett’s book is packed with case summaries, statistics, interviews, field research, and complex scientific explanations. Garrett organizes this complex information in a four-part structure: part one contextualizes the crisis that currently exists within forensic science and the damage that has been done; part two explains the often-unscientific way forensics is conducted; part 3 identifies the complex problems that exist within most forensic laboratories; and part 4 explores the current movement to fix forensics. Each of these four parts build upon one another in order to create a full picture of where forensic science has been and where it will continue to go if real change is not made. As a reader, this four-part structure helped me to take in the immense and sometimes overwhelming amounts of information that are presented in this book. Within the four-part structure are specific sub-headings that also build upon one another and create a roadmap of information. The amount of information that is contained underneath each subheading is carefully paced: at no time did I feel as though information was being dumped on me as a reader. Even throughout the passages that explore complex scientific processes, I felt well-prepared as a reader to work through them because the book carefully and slowly builds upon all the information it provides.
Beyond its clever structure and flawless pacing, Garrett’s book also offers, at the end of each section as well as in its conclusion, recommendations for changes within the field of forensic science, or what Garrett calls “[a] blueprint for fixing forensic science” (198). Garrett’s argument is that many branches of forensic science are not in any way regulated and have little to no scientific research backing them. The branches of forensic science that he identifies as particularly problematic are bite pattern analysis (or forensic dentistry), fingerprinting, arson investigation, bloodstain pattern analysis, and hair comparison analysis. He argues that many of these branches are responsible for a disproportionate number of wrongful convictions. He also explains the ways that practitioners of these branches are often misleading (and sometimes deliberately so) when they testify in court. Because of a lack of regulation in many of these fields, there is no standard to which these practitioners are held in a courtroom. Garrett’s evidence for these claims are damning. What is even more sobering are the recommendations that Garrett offers as a way to fix these fields. They are such common-sense solutions that one cannot help but wonder why they have not already been implemented. One such recommendation reads that “we should not allow people to serve as experts if we do not know how reliable they are. Labs must regularly assess how examiners use their experience, skill, and judgement to make decisions using proficiency testing” (199). Another recommends that:
Firewalls must be built in order to prevent cognitive bias from harming the accuracy of forensic work…forensic experts routinely receive all sorts of biasing and irrelevant information from police or prosecutors. Further, a forensic examinators work should be documented and transparent, with all information about methods used and conclusions reached shared with the lawyers and the court (199).
The fact that the skills of forensic examinators are often not tested or tested inefficiently, or that examinators are often not required to document the steps they take to come to conclusions that could assist in putting someone in prison or to death was extremely shocking to me. Regulation, Garrett argues, is what is sorely needed in this field. After reading about all the lives that were and continue to be destroyed on the basis of faulty forensic testing, it was extremely productive to read Garrett’s common-sense solutions to these problems. Garrett’s book is not just interested in taking this industry to task for its complicity in wrongful convictions. Garrett’s book is interested in fixing the problems that led to these wrongful convictions. He argues that there are branches of forensic science that can be salvaged and utilized as useful tools if only they are remodelled to be able to meet the highest scientific standards. Autopsy of a Crime Lab offers in its form as well as its content a convincing argument against the current state of forensic science, as well as promising solutions for the way forward. This book would be an excellent resource for academics but would also be a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about the problems inherent within forensics.
A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index from University of California Press in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.