A Philosopher's Blog

CSI Overconfidence

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2016

Television shows and movies about CSI often seem to present a science fiction version of investigation that involves amazing technology and incredible inferences. While people do get that the almost magical solving of crimes is fiction, there is still considerable overconfidence in many methods used in real investigations. This overconfidence plays a significant role in some of the problems infecting the criminal justice system.

The history of criminal investigation is replete with debunked methods, such as the use of phrenology to diagnose criminal tendencies. There are also technologies that have little or no validity and are not admitted in court, yet enjoy some public confidence (such as lie detectors). There are also methods that might have some value in investigations, yet are the subject of unwarranted overconfidence in their efficacy. These include such things as bite mark analysis and fiber analysis. Other methods are reasonable useful, such as fingerprints, yet are still often accepted with an unwarranted level of confidence—especially in situations where the defendant has an ill-prepared and overworked public defender. Defendants of means or fame can, of course, purchase a better sort of justice.

In contrast with the above methods, DNA identification strikes many as a silver bullet. After all, aside from identical twins (or clones), no two people have the same DNA. This would seem to make the presence of a person’s DNA at a crime scene extremely good evidence for their involvement.

While such evidence is valuable, it is rather important to consider the limitations of and problems with this method. Contamination and transference should always be given due consideration because DNA can travel quite far. This can be illustrated with an example involving my husky.

Like all huskies, my husky generates an incredible amount of fur and this fur gets onto everything and everyone. The fur is thus transported from my house to various points around the world—I know for a fact that her fur is now in at least five states—although she has not left Florida. As such, if fur sampling was used to determine what dogs had been present, she could show up as being present in many, many locations that she did not visit. The same also holds true for humans. While humans do not shed like huskies, humans do shed hair and this can get onto people and objects that could end up in crime scenes. For example, if Sally wears a hat and it ends up in someone else’s possession, that hat will almost certainly still have Sally’s DNA on it. So, if the hat is found at a crime scene, Sally’s DNA will be found there as well, which could be trouble for Sally.

These concerns do not show that DNA testing should not be used; rather they show that is wise to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism in the face of such evidence. It also shows the importance of informing law enforcement, judges, juries and lawyers about the limitations of methods This assumes, of course, that those involved (have the time to) care about justice—which is not always the case in the criminal justice system. There is also the concern, as noted above, that the quality of a person’s defense is a function of their available resources (be they money or fame). These are, of course, concerns that go far beyond worries about particular methods.

It can be objected that educating people about the limits of such methods could create a skepticism that might undermine convictions. For example, that the possibility of “wandering DNA” could be used to create unwarranted doubt, thus allowing the guilty to go free. A skilled and well paid lawyer could exploit such doubts quite effectively and allow a lawbreaker to go free—thus preventing justice from being done.

This concern is reasonable; while overconfidence is problematic, so is under-confidence. However, the United States’ criminal justice system is supposed to operate on a presumption of innocence: it is better to err on allowing the guilty to go free than to err towards punishing the innocent. As such, the greater mistake would be overconfidence in a method. However, there is the concern that these doubts would be exploited by those who have the resources to purchase an effective defense, while the less fortunate would not benefit from them. But, as has been noted, this is a general problem with America’s pay-to-play legal system.



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12 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on September 12, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Good post, except for your unwarranted assumption that having a good lawyer leads to injustice rather than justice. I would argue the opposite.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2016 at 7:30 pm

      A good lawyer can lead either way; depending on the client and how they win.

      • TJB said, on September 12, 2016 at 10:45 pm

        Don’t forget the prosecutor has the full power of the state behind him. Also, prosecutors often bend the rules, cops lie, etc. The defense has very few advantages.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 13, 2016 at 7:03 pm

          True; the state puts significant resources into prosecution and little into providing a defense. I would infer that the non-public defender defense lawyers like this system.

          • ronster12012 said, on September 14, 2016 at 11:07 am

            I would argue that any system that requires a good lawyer to receive justice is not a good system. It is what we have become used to in the western world.

            Didn’t Cicero say that the more laws the less justice/

            • TJB said, on September 14, 2016 at 12:29 pm

              Agree. Basic problem is that prosecutors have too much power and too little accountability.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2016 at 6:44 pm

              Thoreau was also critical of laws. And taxes.

  2. david halbstein said, on September 13, 2016 at 9:50 am

    While DNA evidence is very compelling, I agree that it’s only a part of a whole package and should be considered as such. The situation you discuss is a symptom of a much bigger issue in this country, which is that we tend to get our information from sound bytes and entertainment-based media instead of truly unbiased and scholarly reportage. It’s not that the latter doesn’t exist, it’s that Americans are too lazy to seek it out.

    Remember the movie “Wag the Dog”? After that movie, Americans were convinced that the Clinton administration had manufactured the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company bombing in order to cover up the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And let’s not forget the belief that Tina Fey and Sarah Palin were one in the same person.

    It’s no wonder that Americans believe that the fiction/fantasy of CSI is how the justice department works.

    I think that our justice system is fraught not only with the potential for error, but with cronyism and politics as well.

    I’m no criminal, but I have had my days in traffic court. When I have gone to plead my case myself, I have been bullied and silenced, and have had my fines increased. When I have gone with a lawyer, I get off. It has nothing to do with pleading my case or finding the truth – I am convinced that it is the profession demonstrating its elite status and power over the rest of us. I have stood before a judge next to my lawyer, eyes cast downward, as the questioning has gone thus:

    “Oh, hello John”
    “Hello, your honor”
    “How is your father?”
    “He is well, Judge. Shot a 72 last week”
    “Give him my regards. What do we have here?”
    “Oh, it’s just one of those Route 9 things” (essentially a speed trap)
    (to me) “Do you know how dangerously you acted?”
    (me) “Yes, sir”
    “OK – charge reduced to careless driving … ” etc, etc.

    It’s really insulting.

    Judges, prosecutors and attorneys do favors for each other and advance each others’ careers. They make decisions based on their political support and campaign platforms.

    My own son was assaulted and nearly killed a few years ago. The perpetrators had attacked several people that night, they were caught, and the DA had an ironclad case against them. He told us that he would not seek a deal – that the criminals had nothing the state needed to prosecute. They had eyewitness testimony, several positive ID’s, they caught them in the identified car using the credit cards they had stolen from my son and others, they were tracked via the cell phones of the victims. Yet, surprisingly, with absolutely no request from the DA and amid protests from his office and an outcry from the victims and their families – the judge offered the perpetrators a deal, which they took. Why? Hard to say – except that the deal was aligned with the Judge’s campaign platform of clearing court dockets and saving money, along with a sympathetic bias toward underrepresented populations and hardship.

    Our justice system isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t try to be.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 13, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      As you noted, deals are apparently standard practice-probably because the system is overloaded (often with all those drug cases).

    • ronster12012 said, on September 14, 2016 at 10:08 am


      That judge should be removed. It is judges like that that bring the law into disrepute.

      • david halbstein said, on September 14, 2016 at 6:05 pm

        I assume you are talking about the judge in the assault case. I completely agree. The DA asked me if I wanted to read or have someone read a statement regarding the verdict at the sentencing. I wrote a piece, which the DA strongly advised me not to read – it was truly contempt of court of the highest order.

        • ronster12012 said, on September 15, 2016 at 4:32 am

          Freedom of speech and all that…lol

          What irks me enormously are all the hidden allegiances and connections. I wouldn’t care, freedom of association and all, that except that these are monopolies.

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