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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2013 Mar;44(1):60-70. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2012.09.008. Epub 2012 Oct 30.

Science, truth, and forensic cultures: the exceptional legal status of DNA evidence.

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  • 1Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


Many epistemological terms, such as investigation, inquiry, argument, evidence, and fact were established in law well before being associated with science. However, while legal proof remained qualified by standards of 'moral certainty', scientific proof attained a reputation for objectivity. Although most forms of legal evidence (including expert evidence) continue to be treated as fallible 'opinions' rather than objective 'facts', forensic DNA evidence increasingly is being granted an exceptional factual status. It did not always enjoy such status. Two decades ago, the scientific status of forensic DNA evidence was challenged in the scientific literature and in courts of law, but by the late 1990s it was being granted exceptional legal status. This paper reviews the ascendancy of DNA profiling, and argues that its widely-heralded objective status is bound up with systems of administrative accountability. The 'administrative objectivity' of DNA evidence rests upon observable and reportable bureaucratic rules, records, recording devices, protocols, and architectural arrangements. By highlighting administrative sources of objectivity, this paper suggests that DNA evidence remains bound within the context of ordinary organisational and practical routines, and is not a transcendent source of 'truth' in the criminal justice system.

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