In 2003, Donald Kennedy, then the editor in chief of the renowned journal Science, stirred a profound debate with his editorial titled "Forensic Science: Oxymoron?" His conclusion was unequivocal: "yes." Sadly, the passage of time has not dulled the resonance of his words. Forensic experts persist in employing unverified methods, their assertions often accepted without due scrutiny by the courts. Yet, amidst this status quo, a shift is underway, particularly within the realm of firearms identification, where the veil of certainty is starting to lift.
Firearms examiners, often afflicted by what's termed "Sherlock Holmes Syndrome," claim the ability to definitively link bullets or cartridge cases to specific firearms, thereby cracking cases wide open. However, the scientific foundation supporting such claims is notably lacking. Few comprehensive studies exist in this field, casting doubt on the reliability of examiners to accurately attribute bullets or cartridges.
The absence of standardized, evidence-based protocols in firearms identification poses a grave risk to justice. Without such standards, the potential for wrongful convictions looms large, like in the Alex Murdaugh trial, threatening the very core of our judicial system. Fortunately, some courts have begun to acknowledge this risk, albeit at a measured pace, by placing restrictions on firearms testimony. South Carolina has not, they have embraced it.
While firearms examiners tout their expertise within the courtroom, a critical distinction must be made between their practitioner-based knowledge and the rigorous scientific training of research scientists. The scarcity of classically trained research scientists offering testimony further underscores the need for "anti-expert experts" capable of scrutinizing claims made by practitioner-experts.
Skepticism surrounding firearms identification is not new. Reports from esteemed bodies like the National Research Council (NRC) and the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) have long highlighted the deficiencies within this field. Despite these warnings, firearms examiners have vehemently contested such reports, often relying on flawed studies to bolster their claims.
A closer examination of these studies from AFTE, or the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners reveals significant methodological flaws, particularly in the classification of "inconclusive" responses, which artificially deflate reported error rates. When subjected to rigorous scrutiny, the purported infallibility of firearms identification crumbles, revealing a disturbingly high error rate of up to 52% error rate.
SLED Agent Paul Greer is a member of AFTE, the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners. He attends an annual seminar with AFTE. He attends when he's able. He's attended several regional and national seminars from AFTE. Paul Greer testified the .300 Blackout cartridge casings found around Maggie Murdaugh's body match with .300 Blackout cartridge casings from two other places at Alex Murdaugh's Moselle property. Greer identified outside the gun room at the Moselle residence and the Murdaugh's shooting range as having the same cartridge casings around Maggie. Paul Greer used the AFTE method to tell if the shell casings found around Maggie's body and other places on the Murdaugh property were from the same gun, which he confirmed using the AFTE method.
Agent Greer guided the jury through his meticulous process of testing bullets and casings using the AFTE method, a technique American Scientific criticized as highly flawed. Greer explained how he fires these projectiles through firearms, asserting that the process leaves unique markings akin to fingerprints on the metal. However, experts argue that this information amounts to little more than junk science, with a failure rate reaching up to 52%, far higher than the 1% claimed by AFTE and Greer's training with them. Despite Greer's testimony linking markings found at various locations around the property to those discovered near the victim's body, it's crucial to note that his assertions carry a significant margin of error, potentially rendering up to 52% of his findings incorrect. This information presented by Greer was never tested by the defense. They missed a huge opportunity to discredit the junk science in front of the jury. Even though both of Paul Murdaugh's .300 Blackout guns are missing, it does not mean that family guns were used to kill Maggie Murdaugh within an accuracy of 1%. The margin of error is up to 52% and should never have been used to convict a man beyond reasonable doubt to life in prison.
As our justice system grapples with these challenges, the imperative for evidence-based standards and scientific rigor has never been clearer. Scientists, equipped with the tools of skepticism and scrutiny, must play a pivotal role in guiding the courts toward a more reliable application of forensic science. It's time for South Carolina courtrooms, especially for Murdaugh, to embrace the expertise of anti-expert experts, ensuring that science, not speculation, guides the pursuit of justice.