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CNN Presents Classroom: Reasonable Doubt: Can Crime Labs Be Trusted?

(CNN Student News) -- Set your VCR to record CNN Presents Classroom Edition: Reasonable Doubt: Can Crime Labs Be Trusted when it airs commercial-free on Monday, March 13, 2006, from 4:00 -- 5:00 a.m. ET on CNN. (A short feature begins at 4:00 a.m. and precedes the program.)

Program Overview

In a criminal court, forensic evidence can be decisive. A fingerprint match or positive hair analysis can turn a questionable case into a slam-dunk conviction. Jurors often see forensics as infallible, and popular TV shows like CSI have added to the mystique. But how good is the science behind forensics? And how well do our crime labs operate? A joint investigation conducted by CNN Presents and the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals serious flaws in bullet evidence, hair analysis, DNA testing, and even fingerprinting. In some cases, those flaws have put innocent people in prison.

Grade Levels: 6-12

Subject Areas: Forensics, Life Science, Biology, Civics, Law

Objectives: This CNN Presents Classroom Edition: Reasonable Doubt and its corresponding discussion questions and activities challenge students to:

  • Identify the types of evidence collected and analyzed by forensics experts;
  • Discuss the roles forensics experts can play in criminal cases;
  • Examine criminal cases in which faulty forensics evidence led to wrongful convictions;
  • Investigate the scientific basis of forensics;
  • Recommend accountability standards in the forensics industry.
  • Curriculum Connections

    Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

    Standard VIII. Science, Technology and Society: Students will examine the relationships among science, technology and society.

    The Curriculum Standards for Social Studies ( link) are published by the National Council for Social Studies ( link).

    Science Standard and Benchmarks

    Nature of Science: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry Benchmarks:

  • Understands the use of hypotheses in science
  • Designs and conducts scientific investigations
  • Knows that scientists conduct investigations for a variety of reasons
  • McREL: Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education (Copyright 2000 McREL) is published online by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) ( link), 2550 S. Parker Road, Suite 500, Aurora, CO 80014.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is forensics? What different types of evidence do investigators look for at a crime scene? How is forensic science used in criminal cases? What is the FBI? What are some ways that this organization uses forensic science in its criminal investigations?

    2. What is fingerprint analysis? For how long has fingerprint analysis been used in court cases? How is fingerprint matching done? How many points of comparison must exist between two fingerprint samples for an examiner to proclaim a match? Explain. What do you think that the reporter means when he says that "finger print identification, the gold standard of forensic evidence, is more art than science"? How does the story illustrate that fingerprint analysis can provide inaccurate results?

    3. What is bullet lead analysis? Which is the only lab in the United States to perform this analysis? How do analysts determine if two bullets "match"? For how long has this process been used? According to the program, what is the scientific foundation for bullet lead analysis? On what fundamental assumptions does the FBI base its findings? How do experts in the program challenge these assumptions?

    4. What is DNA profiling? What are some examples of how DNA can be used in criminal cases? Why do you think that the reporter refers to DNA analysis as "the gem of forensic evidence"? What is "infallibility"? What examples does the program offer to illustrate that DNA analysis is not infallible?

    5. What makes something "scientific"? What is the definition of "empirical"? According to the story, what aspects of forensic science are derived from empirical data? What roles do probability and statistics play in forensics analysis? Would you say that forensics is a science? Why or why not? Do you think that some aspects of forensics are more or less scientific than others? Explain.

    6. The reporter suggests that, to critics, the role of forensics in the criminal justice system is "more geared to conviction rates than objective science." What arguments does the program provide to support or refute this statement? How do you think that forensics science should be used?

    7. Who are Arnold Melnikoff, Joyce Gilchrist, Fred Zain and Jacqueline Blake? How does the program characterize their work in the forensics industry? What types of "mistakes" made by these and other forensics experts does the program present? What is the Innocence Project? How does this group hope to address forensics mistakes?

    8. In what ways, if any, are forensics experts held accountable at the local, state or federal levels? Who do you think should be held accountable for the validity and accuracy of forensics results? Explain. Do you think that the forensics industry should have a series of checks and balances? Why or why not? If so, what do you think these checks and balances should be? Do you think that the hundreds of reports of wrongful convictions justify the money and effort it would take to conduct an overhaul of the forensics industry? Why or why not?

    9. Why does Innocence Project lawyer Peter Neufield think that, "Forensic science has gotten a free ride for the last 50 years"? Why do you think there are so few laws and standards that regulate the forensics industry? What recommendations did Neufield provide for how to assess the professionalism of forensics? Do you think that these recommendations are reasonable or doable? Why or why not? What forensics legislation did Congress pass last year? What additional legislation, if any, do you think Congress should consider with respect to the forensics industry? Explain.

    10. What are some of the implications for the criminal justice system of an unregulated and non-standardized forensics industry? How might new regulations or standards in this industry impact police, prosecutors, courts, corrections, inmates, wrongfully accused inmates or U.S. citizens? What are some possible short- or long-term social, political or economic ramifications that could stem from a "system failure of the forensics industry"?

    11. Why do you think that, as CNN's Aaron Brown suggests, America is fascinated with forensic science? How do you account for the popularity of the topic of forensics in the media? Are you fascinated by forensic science? Why or why not?

    12. Why do you think that, despite the potential uncertainties, forensic evidence is so compelling to juries? Do you think that regulations in the industry could prevent wrongful convictions? Why or why not? Does this program alter the way you think about crime and punishment in the United States? Explain.

    Suggested Activities

    1. Reasonable Doubt

    Discuss with students the four cases presented in the program (Riky Jackson, Michael Behn, Jimmy Ray Bromgard and Josiah Sutton). Review the crimes for which each was convicted, the forensics evidence and expert testimonies that helped to secure the convictions, the mistakes (according to the program) that were made by the forensics experts in the case, and the status of the inmates. Then ask: What lessons do you think can be learned from each of these cases? Why do you think that the juries in each of these cases found the suspects guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt"? What, if anything, do you think could be done in future cases to prevent wrongful convictions?

    Next, refer small groups of students to the Internet to find recent criminal cases in which forensics evidence was used to charge the suspects in the crime. Have each group of students identify which tools might have been collected from the crime scenes (e.g., DNA, hair or blood samples, ballistics, fingerprinting, etc.). Then, ask students to imagine that they are jury members assigned to their cases. Challenge groups to create lists of questions pertaining to the forensics evidence that the jury members would want to ask and have answered by the prosecutors, defense attorneys or suspects in the cases. Then, ask students to consider two hypothetical scenarios: 1) Under what circumstances do you think that you would vote "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," and 2) Under what circumstances would you vote "not guilty"? Encourage students to use what they learned in the program as they weigh the reliability of the forensic evidence in the cases to assess guilt or innocence. Ask: How likely would you be to convict? Have groups prepare and present their cases to the class. Discuss with students the meaning of "reasonable doubt" and whether or not they would be more or less likely to convict based on the types of evidence in the case.

    2. Who Done It?

    [Note to Teachers: The following activity encourages students to collect basic physical evidence from a hypothetical crime scene as they analyze what might have happened. While this is a very basic exercise that gets students thinking about the investigative process, it can become more complex depending on your school's resources. You may expand this activity by having students conduct chemical analyses of the physical evidence, or by working with local universities that offer classes in forensics.]

    Organize students into small groups. Have the groups brainstorm hypothetical crimes. The groups can choose physical locations to simulate the crime scenes or they can sketch out the crime scenes on paper. In addition, direct group members to create profiles for the crimes' perpetrators. As groups create their crime scenes, have them provide (or indicate, if on paper) traces of physical evidence for the forensics experts to find (e.g., fingerprints or footprints, hair samples, dirty cups [DNA samples], handwritten notes, identifying accessories such as gloves, pay stubs or buttons, etc.). Have the groups include brief written summaries of what the crime scenes looked like when the police first arrived.

    Once the groups have created their crime scenes, have them pretend that they are groups of forensics experts. Have each group of students investigate another group's crime scene. Once the students "arrive" on the scene, have each group:

  • Read through the written summary of the crime scene, and discuss the crime that appears to have taken place.
  • Identify and collect any possible physical evidence at the scene, being careful not to taint any of the evidence.
  • Create a list of questions about the possible sources of the physical evidence and what the evidence could mean.
  • Indicate what scientific procedures it would need to conduct on each physical sample.
  • Direct groups to note their methodologies and make predictions about who may have committed the crimes. As the groups present their findings to the class, ask: How sure are you of the physical evidence? What do you think is the potential for error? What questions remain unanswered?

    3. A Career in Forensics

    Discuss with students why someone might want to enter a career in forensics. Ask: What education, skills, strengths or interests should the person have? Refer students to the Web sites listed and additional sources to learn more about careers in forensics. Then, have them create job resumes and cover letters to submit for a job in forensics.

    Extension: Interview school faculty, family members and people who work in the local community to learn more about the standards and accountability factors in a variety of professions. Consider the accountability in other fields, such as education, government, business and industry. Direct students to ask the following questions for each person they interview:

  • What tests must you take to prove you are proficient in your job?
  • What are some ways that the quality of your work is measured?
  • What are some of the internal or external audits that monitor your work?
  • Based on their findings, have students make recommendations for accountability in the forensics industry.


    Forensic science, ballistics, DNA profiling, "reasonable doubt," fait accompli, prosecution, infallible, ad hoc, fingerprint, affidavit, FBI, criminology, metallurgist, pseudo-science, smelters, empirical, misdemeanor, Innocence Project, egregious, statistics, genetics, audits, "negative controls," arson, toxicology, homicide, HIV, accreditation, remediate

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