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Judges and forensic science education: A national survey

Journal: Forensic Science International
Published: 2021
Primary Author: Brandon L. Garrett
Secondary Authors: Brett O. Gardner, Evan Murphy, Patrick Grimes

In criminal cases, forensic science reports and expert testimony play an increasingly important role in adjudication. More states now follow a federal reliability standard, which calls upon judges to assess the reliability and validity of scientific evidence. Little is known about how judges view their own background in forensic scientific evidence, and what types of specialized training they receive on it. In this study, we surveyed 164 judges from 39 different U.S. states, who attended past trainings at the National Judicial College. We asked these judges about their background in forensic science, their views concerning the reliability of common forensic disciplines, and their needs to better evaluate forensic science evidence. We discovered that judges held views regarding the scientific support for different forensic science disciplines that were fairly consistent with available literature; their error rate estimates were more supported by research than many estimates by laypersons, who often assume forensic methods are nearly infallible. We did not find any association between how judges rate forensic reliability and prior training. We did, however, find that training corresponded with judges’ views that they should, and do in fact, take on a more active gatekeeping role regarding forensics. Regarding the tools judges need to vet forensic experts and properly evaluate forensic science evidence, they reported having very different backgrounds in relevant scientific concepts and having forensic science education needs. Judges reported needs in accessing better material concerning reliability of forensic science methods. These results support new efforts to expand scientific evidence education in the judiciary.

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