Netflix series reveal injustice and junk science are plaguing our nation’s courts

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

By Yaël Ossowski

With so many of us doing our part to stay at home, it’s been the perfect time to dive into binge-worthy Netflix series.

For many, it’s been Tiger King or reruns of Friends, but some of the more interesting series deconstruct the American justice system and its complexities: innocence or guilt, truth and facts, and institutional bias.

Because television series allow directors to carefully examine a story and interview dozens of witnesses and experts, audiences have become addicted to the very real characters dealing with tragedy and the inadequacies of our courts.

Shows such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Staircase,” in which their principal characters cling to innocence, inspired millions to ask the simple question: is the American legal system just and can it deliver justice? What happens when experts lead juries and judges astray?

It should be no surprise then that miscarriages of justice and tainted evidence, mixed in with biased scientific evidence, are not just fodder for documentarians but are represented in thousands of cases that don’t get their own TV deal.

Our binge sessions allow us to rummage through the hundreds of examples of “junk science” that has been taken for a fact before judges and juries, sending innocent people to prison or resulting in multi-million-dollar lawsuit settlements to tort injury lawyers. In “The Innocence Files,” it was a controversial “bite mark” analysis that sent an innocent man to death row for nearly 16 years. Earlier this year, Washington Post writer Radley Balko examined the very bogus forensic science that has plagued our nation’s courts: bite mark analysis, tire treads, ballistics evidence, carpet fibers, and more.

One tool our legal system has devised to counter bogus science, however, is the process of a Daubert standard, an eponymous process from a Supreme Court trial that seeks to classify expert testimony and evidence.

Daubert hearings empower judges to examine the gathering of evidence and whether it should be allowed in court cases. And this applies to broader scientific evidence beyond simple forensics. Balko mentions one D.C. judge’s Daubert ruling on ballistics specifically, calling into question the black-or-white conclusions such science could produce. That’s inspired lawyers around the country to ask for Daubert rulings in their cases.

One such example in the headlines is whether or not baby powder, an essential product for new moms and dads and a staple of the female hygiene industry, contains cancer-causing minerals such as asbestos.

Rulings on both sides have awarded up to $4.7 billion to plaintiffs suing pharmaceutical and beauty giant Johnson & Johnson. Select scientific evidence, and whether it can be admitted as evidence at trial, is at the heart of these cases.

To that end, a U.S. District Court in New Jersey is currently reviewing whether submittedscientific evidence that purports a link between talc, a main ingredient of baby powder, and various cancers should be allowed as evidence. Thus far, major independent studies have found no causal link, including evaluations by the American Cancer Society and a recent study from the National Institutes of Health.

But expert witnesses brought in by the plaintiffs have conducted studies that say the opposite. Some of those studies have yet to be peer-reviewed or replicated, but they’ve been admitted regardless. Which evidence will get the light of day? That is what the judge will have to decide.

In this civil trial, millions of dollars and reputations are at stake. In so many others, it’s the lives of innocent men and women.

As citizens, taxpayers, and consumers, one major concern with our justice system should be that only the most rigorous and reputable science be admitted as evidence. Only incontrovertible truth and seasoned scientific inquiry should sway juries, not evidence that can be easily debunked or will be easily refuted years later.

If we uphold that as our standard, we can strive toward the legal reform we truly deserve, both for those accused of crimes and those in the crosshairs of civil disputes. That’s the only way we’ll achieve true justice in our nation’s courts.

Yaël Ossowski is a writer, consumer advocate, and deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center.