There are few true crime fans who don’t swoon at a good forensic science sequence in a documentary or podcast. It’s like a secret language that investigators speak, and hearing it opens up a new world of understanding true crime. The genre itself loves using forensic science and physical evidence to tell a story of guilt or innocence. Forensic science can be a tangible link to the truth of a crime, but what happens when that science or those who orchestrate it aren’t perfect? Netflix’s docuseries Exhibit A explores the validity of forensic science and changes how you perceive any true crime you watch afterward.
Over the course of only 4 episodes, Exhibit A focuses on different aspects of forensic science and their effect on specific cases. Unlike small forensic science segments in shows like 20/20 or 48 Hours, Exhibit A dedicates the entire show to explaining how specific fields of forensic science operate before even mentioning a case as an example. It delves into video surveillance, blood splatter, cadaver dogs, and fingerprint DNA. Instead of showing how these tactics are indisputable and can solve any case, like in Forensic Files, this show tells stories about cases where the science or scientists can be faulty. The show also takes on the burden of explaining to viewers how the police and investigators got it wrong, which most Americans have a hard time believing is possible. In telling these stories, the show doesn’t just question how trustworthy the science was in those cases but in other true crime cases as well.
The series begins by showing how video surveillance (CCTV), police body cams, and other forms of videotaping don’t get the entire experience of a crime. Video expert Grant Fredericks explains how video is a series of pictures that can miss blips in time and that any investigator should treat a video as a witness, not a coherent representation of a crime. In today’s world where video feels almost as real as experiencing something first hand and is such an integrated part of our day, a lot of people hardly question the validity of what they see on screen. This absolutely extends to how a lot of investigators view video evidence when trying to solve a crime, especially when that is all they have to go off of. Fredericks breaks down a video of someone shooting a gun, but less than half of the shots can be visible on the video via muzzle flashes. Just going by the video, investigators wouldn’t know how many shots were fired by the person shooting. The video is proof that while the science is fascinating, no evidence should be taken at face value when deciding someone’s guilt or innocence.
To make the series not just a dry documentary of scientists explaining their work, Exhibit A then shows how the scientific topic of the episode led to a false conviction in a specific case. Just like in Making a Murderer, trying to explain how the evidence against someone doesn’t mean they’re guilty is a hard story to tell. It can sound like a conspiracy theory more than a legit case, especially when told by people who aren’t professionals. However, the cases are important in showing how science can be misinterpreted and the dire consequences of rushing to conclusions. As cool as cadaver dogs are, it doesn’t mean they should be the basis for convicting a father with the murder of his daughter.
The second episode explains how blood spatter led to a break in a cold case but also how it may not have been a reasonable piece of evidence. In theory, blood-spatter analysis is a wonderful technique that can lead to a true conviction, but it depends on the scientists involved and the situation at hand. In the convicted woman’s case, investigators ignored a lot of other leads like anonymous death threats and previous break-ins when convicting the woman of killing her husband. Yet, she was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury.
When experiencing true crime stories, many people are convinced someone has to be guilty based on the forensics against them. Since a layperson doesn’t know very much about the science behind forensics, prosecutors can give explanations that an expert would find untrue but that a juror may believe. In the case on Exhibit A and any other case, evidence like the microscopic blood-spatter should be taken into consideration, not as a damning piece of evidence that alone proves someone is guilty, but a piece that needs to be put into context with everything investigators know to make any sense.
As a true crime community, we put a lot of weight in forensics. Exhibit A is one of the first shows to really question that as a perfect basis for conviction. Just as we have blindly trusted the prosecutors and detectives who are more than capable of mistakes, forensics and the scientists that bring us the evidence aren’t perfect either. Each episode of the series explains the science in a way the audience can understand and in a way that proves it is in fact useful. However, they also show that the way we perceive the science should be with a skeptical eye. Forensic evidence can be misused. Some evidence can contradict other evidence. It’s not a sure-shot way to convict someone.
While investigators should understand that evidence needs to be interpreted and corroborated, true crime fans should, too. Just because the prosecutors or defense attorneys claim a piece of evidence means one thing about the story, doesn’t mean it can’t be perceived another way. When shown video of a crime on a show, it doesn’t mean they are showing the audience the whole story. Just as we need to be vigilant in suspecting what we see online as the truth, true crime fans should do the same with what they are told about a case.
The idea that there are multiple ways to explain the existence of someone’s fingerprint or the detection of blood spots shouldn’t mean that everything we are told about forensic science is wrong. It means that what we experience in true crime is merely one perception of a crime and that we should be open to counter-opinions to what we are being told as an audience. Only by accepting the faults of forensic science and physical evidence can we find what needs to be improved and what interesting stories can be told about the gray area between guilty and not guilty.
You can stream all four episodes of Exhibit A on Netflix now.