John Oliver wants to get tough on crime, or as he calls it “that thing that was almost solved by a flasher dog in the 1980s.” On Last Week Tonight, he turns his attention to the use of forensic evidence in trials. Forensics like bite marks, fingerprints, hair analysis, and DNA are a staple of TV crime shows — and Oliver has the mash-up of CSI and Law & Order to prove it — but the truth is that aside from DNA evidence, which is considered “the gold standard,” forensics aren’t nearly as reliable as TV shows would have you believe.
Despite that, the shows have led to a so-called “CSI effect” in court cases where jurors expect forensic evidence to be presented. However, forensic evidence isn’t always available and when it is, it can be — and is — frequently analyzed incorrectly. According to Oliver, a recent survey of 268 cases where FBI hair analysis led to a conviction revealed that 96% of them had errors in analysis — and nine of the people convicted had already been executed. “You would expect FBI hair analysis to have a higher rate of accuracy than your friend’s hair analysis that you can totally pull off bangs, because you can’t, you absolutely can’t,” says Oliver.
Despite the wobbly science, judges often allow evidence in based on precedent, so if a particular discipline was admitted into evidence before, judges are likely to admit it again, even if it’s not necessarily good science. According to Oliver, it creates a vicious cycle where the decisions about the validity of science are being made by people who don’t necessarily understand it. “It’s like a cooking competition for toddlers, hosted by a stray cat, and judged by goats,” says Oliver.
States are beginning to act to protect criminal defendants from faulty forensics. Texas has passed a so-called junk science law that would let convicts appeal their convictions if the science used to convict them is proved faulty. Oliver was surprised that Texas was leading the nation in the field. “You expect Texas to lead the nation in remembering the Alamo and naming their children ‘Football’,” says Oliver.
To educate jurors about the realities of forensic science, Oliver created his own forensic TV show starring Josh Charles as CSI: Crime Scene Idiot with support from Shannon Woodward, Josh Lucas, Bobby Burke, and Samira Wiley.