Forensic science has transformed the criminal justice system, but lawyers and judges have struggled to keep up with developments in that arena.
A weeklong program for public defenders was designed to close that knowledge gap. Roughly 120 public defenders gathered in New York this week for the first-of-its kind Forensic College, co-sponsored by Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
“Training lawyers in the latest in forensic science means we are creating a network of public defenders who are better armed in the courtroom and more prepared to win their case,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which is housed at Cardozo. “Spreading this type of knowledge is essential in our goal of decreasing the numbers of those wrongfully imprisoned.”
The idea is that the public defenders who attended the gathering at Cardozo will serve as resources for colleagues back home. The by-invitation-only program targeted supervisors and “thought leaders,” Scheck said.
For six days, participants heard from experts on topics including the contamination of DNA samples by labs; litigation of false-confession cases; and the latest findings on eyewitness memory and identification. They also focused on digital evidence, including cellphone records, and fingerprinting.
Another topic was “low-template” DNA, which refers to instances when only small amounts of genetic material are recovered from a crime scene. There are four different way to interpret small samples, and each can yield different results, Scheck said, so understanding the highly technical process is key to representing clients.
“This is precisely the sort of program that is the core part of the NACDL mission—fostering the expertise of the criminal defense profession,” association executive director Norman Reimer said. “NACDL, through its myriad training programs, is committed to ensuring that all attorneys—private and public defenders—are equipped to deliver the very best, cutting edge defense to their clients.”
Scheck hopes the college will become an annual program, but even more important than educating prosecutors and public defenders is getting judges up to speed, he said.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be soon be able to hold a national college on this stuff for judges, who desperately need a better understanding of the science,” Scheck said. “This is an area that’s exploding and we’re all just trying to catch up.”