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Forensic testimony more transparent

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Dallas Morning News Editorial

Call it the CSI effect, or just a smart evolution in fighting crime, but forensic evidence has never been more important to the integrity of the criminal justice system than it is now.

It's become routine for prisoners alleging they've been wrongly convicted to point to DNA evidence to try to prove their innocence. Often, they're just grasping at straws. But in dozens of cases in Texas alone, they've been right -- and walked out of prison as a result.

But more often that that, it's the smart use of forensic evidence that helps put violators behind bars, as the power of DNA evidence to persuade remains potent in whichever way -- toward guilt or innocence -- the evidence points.

That's precisely why it's such bad news when forensic scientists, prosecutors or others mishandle, misunderstand or misuse forensic evidence. These mistakes have helped convict people who were innocent in some cases, and in many more have weakened the confidence required to keep our justice system working well.

The problem is only deepened as reliance on forensic testimony has risen as other mainstay tools in the prosecutors' kits -- from eyewitness testimony to poorly conducted photo lineups -- have become less reliable.

In 2013, fumbles at a Garland state police lab mixed up a couple of blood samples containing evidence of blood alcohol content. When the mix-up was discovered, the two defendants' cases were thrown into chaos. But what happened next was much worse.

Lab analyst Chris Youngkin gave conflicting testimony under oath about how the mistake had happened, and as a result, hundreds of cases were suddenly thrown into doubt -- and for good reason. If you can't trust the analysts who handle the evidence, then how can you trust the convictions that evidence helped secure?

Four years later, the actual effect on DWI cases in North Texas has been less than initially feared. Judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers have re-examined hundreds of cases, but only a relative handful were actually reopened and few led to new results. Turns out, there are more ways to prove a driver was drunk than by blood alcohol tests.

That's a relief, for sure. But better news still is the fact that prosecutors in several counties now tell Dallas Morning News reporter Valerie Wigglesworth that out of the chaos of Youngkin's conflicting testimony, and the challenges to the system's integrity that followed, a new system has evolved that leans toward more transparency.

Prosecutors, for instance, are now required to be informed if a mistake is discovered in the lab, something that ought to have been the case all along.

Some defense attorneys think that tilt toward transparency should go further. They want juries told whenever an analyst with a track record of mistakes is involved in the testimony against their clients. That may be asking too much, but in the meantime it's welcome news that the problems of 2013 have led to improvements in 2017.