Understanding Scientific Evidence in a Criminal Trial

Let’s take a closer look for a moment at what’s known as “scientific evidence” in the courtroom. Our last blog post discussed the case of a man convicted of arson 20 years ago, only to have his conviction thrown out recently in light of modern-day scrutiny of what passed for scientific evidence regarding arson back then. So what do we mean when we talk about scientific evidence, and what can defendants in Morris County do when prosecutors try to use it against them in court?

Scientific evidence generally means that the scientific community has essentially vetted whatever the basis is for the evidence. Fingerprint matching is a good example of a form of scientific evidence that’s been in regular use for decades and is not controversial among the scientific community when introduced as evidence in a criminal trial. The radar guns commonly used by police to catch speeders are another example.

DNA evidence is an example of a newer technology, however, and it had to go through a number of steps before becoming acceptable to the legal and scientific communities for use in court. When asked to allow such evidence at a trial, a judge may order a mini-trial just to examine the methodology behind that evidence itself. If it’s found to be based on sound theory, the judge may rule that it is valid evidence. DNA evidence went through many such trials in its early days.

Here, then, is an opportunity for defendants to challenge scientific evidence. A criminal defense professional will recognize when the prosecution is attempting to enter evidence based on new, untested scientific methods and can ensure the judge gives them the scrutiny they deserve. Evidence that does not pass a mini-trial can be thrown out entirely.

Also, as in the case of last week’s arson story, sometimes old evidence in a criminal conviction needs to be re-examined in the wake of new scientific discoveries. Morristown residents facing criminal charges have the right to challenge prosecutors’ evidence and a legal professional can often help them do so in an effective way.

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