Legal Admissibility

Scientific evidence has long been governed by legal admissibility standards designed to ensure that there is some level of confidence in the evidence before it may be presented in a court proceeding. While there are several different approaches to determining admissibility of scientific evidence among different U.S. jurisdictions, they all share the same philosophy, which is focused on allowing reliable evidence and excluding unreliable evidence. Because any incident requiring microbial forensics is likely to have national security implications, this chapter will primarily discuss Federal legal admissibility standards.

Until 1993, the Federal standard for admissibility was governed by a 1923 decision, Frye v. U.S.2 The essence of that standard was that ". . . expert opinion based on a scientific technique is inadmissible unless the technique is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community." For 70 years this "general acceptance" standard was used to determine scientific evidence admissibility in Federal and many state courts. In 1975 the Federal Rules of Evidence3 were enacted. Some of these rules specifically address foundational requirements for the admissibility of scientific evidence. From the date of enactment of the Federal rules, there was significant debate and divergence of opinion among legal scholars about whether or not the Rules superseded the general acceptance standard articulated in Frye. Any question about this conflict was decisively resolved in 1993 by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.4 This opinion determined that Frye no longer governed the admissibility of scientific evidence, and that the Federal rules prescribed how such evidence should be scrutinized prior to admitting it in a Federal Court proceeding.

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