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Pitt Law Professor Thinks Law Enforcement Can Do More

The FBI reports that 322, 537 crimes were committed in Pennsylvania in 2010 with 14.4% being violent offenses.  According to a University of Pittsburgh law professor, more scientific methods could have been used by police to investigate those crimes.

David Harris, the Associate Dean for Research at the Pitt Law School,  believes there is a "resistance" to sound investigative methods, and that many police and prosecutorial agencies have actively opposed replacing questionable investigative methods with better, empirically proven techniques.  On Wednesday he will discuss those contentions that are a major focus of his book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.

According to Harris, there are decades of good, solid, scientific work in the areas of eyewitness identification, interrogation of suspects and forensic disciplines.

“DNA exonerations, now numbering more than 250 nationwide, prove that traditional techniques of eyewitness identification, suspect interrogation and forensic testing contain fundamental flaws that have resulted in miscarriages of justice, including punishment of the innocent and escape of the guilty,” Harris said.

Harris said, “I’m not looking for perfection in the justice system. I am not an idealist, I am not naive, I know we are human beings,” but he thinks we need a little more.

Some departments are adopting the new methods because of legislation, or because leaders within the system moving the process along in the right direction.

According to Harris, a good example of this would be in North Carolina, which has had its share of wrongful convictions that get reversed, as well as cases that have been in the media.

“They now have an Innocence Inquiry Commission that is a standing state body that looks into any case where there is real substantial evidence of a wrongful conviction. They now have a whole new asset of protocols for the correct use of eyewitness testimony for the correct ways to show eyewitnesses, suspects, line-ups and things like that,” said Harris.

Harris credited the leadership of North Carolina’s former chief justice, who came out and said "the integrity of the legal system counts to everybody."

However, Pennsylvania established its own Innocence Commission just months later in 2007 comprised of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law enforcement officers, and victims’ advocates studying the causes of erroneous convictions and making recommendations for preventing them.

Harris said there is an obligation to do the best work possible.  "Use the best methods that our minds and our scientific work have shown us that are out there. To simply say we have no problem or we are better off ignoring the science, to me does not respond to the best that we are.”

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala and County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams will also speak at the event in the Barco Law Building in Oakland at 5 p.m.