Book Review (Forensic Identification and Criminal Justice: Forensic Science, Justice and Risk)


  • Andrea Roth
  • Edward J. Ungvarsky
Publish Date:
February 1, 2009
Publication Title:
Law, Probability and Risk
Book Review Volume 8 Pages 55
  • Andrea L. Roth and Edward J. Ungvarsky, Book Review, Forensic Identification and Criminal Justice: Forensic Science, Justice, and Risk, by Carole McCartney, 8 Law, Probability and Risk 55 (2009).


Judging only by its table of contents, Carole McCartney’s latest book might appear merely a straightforward catalogue of cases and literature discussing the uses of forensic fingerprint and DNA identification technology in the criminal justice context. Upon closer examination, however, the reader encounters a powerful lens offered by McCartney through which to reveal modern society’s unhesitant and largely unscrutinized embrace of these technologies. McCartney borrows the concept of the ‘risk society’, taken from the 1997 book Policing the Risk Society by R. V. Ericson and K. D. Haggerty,1 to describe how our burgeoning preoccupation with the identification and elimination of risk has fueled, and been fueled by, the use of ostensibly ‘fail-safe risk technologies’ (p. xiv).

McCartney’s thought-provoking central thesis is that the emerging ‘technological tyranny’ borne of our obsessive desire for certainty and rectitude is deeply problematic. To begin with, the technologies are not as infallible as they seem, as evidenced by reports of malfeasance, contamination, misinterpretation, fundamentally incorrect scientific assumptions and inaccurate or misleading match statistics. The imperfections of DNA and fingerprint evidence, while in themselves not a reason to abandon the forensic use of such evidence, are particularly dangerous precisely because of their perceived infallibility. Second, even assuming the technologies are reliable, their unfettered use may threaten important values other than accuracy and security, such as privacy and fairness. Finally, the elimination of risk and pursuit of certainty are uniquely dangerous as proffered justifications for ever-more-oppressive social control measures-such as vast national DNA databases-because they can never fully be attained. In the end, the more we pursue certainty and security, the more we realize how uncertain and insecure we are. The more uncertain and insecure we feel, the more willing we are to sacrifice core liberal democratic values in the name of certainty and security.