Inconclusive reports in forensic cartridge-case comparisons conceal exculpatory evidence, report researchers.

Like fingerprints, a firearm’s discarded shell casings have unique markings. This allows forensic experts to compare casings from a crime scene with those from a suspect’s gun. Finding and reporting a mismatch can help free the innocent, just as a match can incriminate the guilty.

But the new study reveals mismatches are more likely than matches to be reported as “inconclusive” in cartridge-case comparisons.

Firearms experts are failing to report evidence that’s favorable to the defense, and it has to be addressed and corrected. This is a terrible injustice to innocent people who are counting on expert examiners to issue a report showing that their gun was not involved but instead are left defenseless by a report that says the result was inconclusive,” says Gary Wells, professor emeritus at Iowa State University.

Wells is coauthor of the paper with Andrew Smith, associate professor of quantitative psychology.

The two researchers pulled a dataset from a previously published experiment involving 228 firearms examiners and 1,811 cartridge-case comparisons. Overall, the participants were highly accurate in determining whether casings from a common firearm matched or mismatched. But when Smith and Wells applied a well-established mathematical model to the data, they found 32% of actual mismatch trials were reported as inconclusive compared to 1% of actual match trials.

“If the 16% of inconclusive reports lined up more evenly across actual matches and non-matches, we could chalk it up to human error. But the asymmetry, combined with the near-perfect performance of examiners, indicated something else was going on. They almost certainly knew that most of the cases they called inconclusive were actual mismatches,” says Smith.

Read the full article about bias in forensic evidence by Rachel Cramer at Futurity.