“Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” was the end product of three (3) years of research and testimony taken by the Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community and the Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. To classify it as groundbreaking and alarming would be an understatement of biblical proportions.
What did they do?
- The Committee that was formed sponsored eight (8) meetings. Four (4) of these meetings which were open to the public.
- The four (4) open meetings included testimonials and recommendations from representatives in the various fields of forensic science, laboratory administrators, academia, statisticians, and lawyers
- During closed meetings, the committee deliberated, reviewed, and drafted a report with thirteen (13) recommendations
The purpose of this blog post is just to highlight the major parts of this major monolith moment
THE MAIN FINDING:
The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country. This can only be done with effective leadership at the highest levels of both federal and state governments, pursuant to national standards, and with a significant infusion of federal funds.
- Create a National Institute of Forensic Sciences (NIFS)
- Standardize terminology and reporting practices
- Expand research on the accuracy, reliability, and validity of the forensic sciences
- Remove forensic science services from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices
- Support forensic science research on human observer bias and sources of error
- Develop tools for advancing measurement, validation, reliability, information sharing, and proficiency testing and to establish protocols for examinations, methods, and practices
- Require the mandatory accreditation of all forensic laboratories and certification for all forensic science practitioners
- Laboratories should establish routine quality assurance procedures
- Establish a national code of ethics with a mechanism for enforcement
- Support higher education in the form of forensic science graduate programs, to include scholarships and fellowships
- Improve the medico-legal death investigation system
- Support AFIS interoperability through the development of standards
- Support the use of forensic science in homeland security
NIJ Response to the NAS Report:
NIJ recognizes the need for fundamental research and currently supports projects that address the accuracy and reliability of forensic methods:
- Tool Marks
- Footwear Impressions
- Tire Impressions
The current forensic science system is not based on science. The analysis is frequently subjective. The same technique used by different analysts can lead to different results. The same technique used by the same analyst on the same sample can lead to a different result. Anecdotal information (“In my training, knowledge, and experience….) makes it way into the Courtroom. Crime labs are needlessly secretive.
According to Professor Constantine Gatsonis, Co-Chair, Forensic Science Committee, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, 2009:
….there is a lot we do not know about other forensic disciplines. Considerably more research and development is needed to provide a rigorous evaluation of the capacity of a method to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.
Further within the NAS report it reads:
There are two very important questions that should underlie the law’s admission of and reliance upon forensic evidence in criminal trials:
- the extent to which a particular forensic discipline is founded on a reliable scientific methodology that gives it the capacity to accurately analyze evidence and report findings and
- the extent to which practitioners in a particular forensic discipline rely on human interpretation that could be tainted by error, the threat of bias, or the absence of sound operational procedures and robust performance standards. p. 87
In his testimony, the Honorable Harry T. Edwards, Co-Chair, Forensic Science Committee:
Judicial review, by itself, will not cure the infirmities of the forensic science community
Reactions to the NAS report have been swift and all across the board from those that deny that there is anything wrong to those who have adopted the NAS report.
Very recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a Draft Outline of Forensic Science Reform Legislation.