Forensic science under the microscope

In the UK we have a phrase: “cockup over conspiracy”, which cautions us against attributing malice to what is probably incompetence. More simply: when your steak comes back well done when you wanted it rare, it’s probably not because the chef doesn’t like you.

This week’s podcast is true crime with a twist, in that it’s less about the crime and the criminal, and a whole lot more about the scientists — and one in particular — trusted to give us impartial facts, free of bias. To go back to the restaurant analogy, this is a story of how someone screwed up a steak order so badly, the wait staff weren’t sure whether it was an equipment error or a gastronomical experiment.

Admissible, produced and hosted by Tessa Kramer, tells the story of Mary Jane Burton, the scientist whose evidence saw 13 men wrongly convicted. In the days just before DNA testing, Burton was considered a hero for saving scraps of fabric and other items in the hopes that science would eventually know what to do with them. But as Kramer’s investigation uncovers, Mary Jane was anything but heroic.

The series is still ongoing so we haven’t really dug into the motivations, and Burton’s no longer around so there’s no way to hear her side of the story. But what it looks like so far is evidence tampering by a forensic scientist, done in the hopes of helping the police close cases.

The minute I’m picking starts at 17:40 in my copy, and it’s a subtle piece of testimony that, to me, explains how miscarriages of justice like these happen over so many years. Someone relatively junior brings a concern to the suits. They don’t want to hear it because it’s inconvenient, so it goes ignored.

What I appreciate in general about the show is that it doesn’t feel overly sensationalised. There’s a focus on getting to the truth and not on painting Mary Jane as a villain. In fact, episode four goes into her back story, which wasn’t always a happy one.

I’ve been looking forward to covering Admissible since hearing the trailer. I think most true crime podcasts are disposable and salacious pulp, but I like this show’s willingness to get nerdy and process-based… after all, this is all about the process.

Admissible is still ongoing, so you can catch up on the first five episodes now.

As this goes out, I’ll be recovering from my 40th birthday party celebrations. I hope I had a good night. Hopefully I’ll be sober by next Sunday. Until then, you keep listening, and I’ll do the same.

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