The National Academy of Sciences issued a major study on forensic science, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” This congressionally mandated study, which began in 2007, caused discussion, denials, ruffled feathers and controversy that has yet to be quelled. An article by Solomon Moore for the New York Times said, “ The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly-trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court.
“People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprint, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.”
The full congressionally mandated report, a 254-page document details a lot of territory, offering observations and recommendations about forensic science methodology and the way the industry conducts its business. It advocates a “massive overhaul” of the science tools behind criminal convictions.
Some of the report talks about the “badly fragmented” state of the forensic science community and highlights these points:
That fingerprint science cannot guarantee that two analysts will obtain the same results.
Matching methods for shoeprint and tire impressions lack statistical backing, making it “impossible to assess.”
In the absence of DNA, hair analyses show “no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization.”
That reviews of bullet match basics in regards to tool mark and firearms analysis show a scientific knowledge that is fairly limited.
Bite-mark matches display “no scientific studies to support assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted.”
According to Katherine Ramsland, writing for The New York Post, ‘Technically, forensic science is the application of scientific perspectives and methods to the investigative and legal process. However, it’s become an umbrella term that encompasses disciplines of skill rather than real science. More alarming are a serious backlog of work and a lack of resources to address the needs. If forensic science loses credibility, the situation will only get worse.” And there is the rub, defense attorneys will use it to challenge all sorts of situations and if you think there is a backlog in science, an examination of the courts may prove staggering at best.
A 2005 Justice Department survey reported there are 389 publicly funded crime labs nationwide handling approximately 2.7 million often-backlogged cases a year. The TV fallacy that cases are solved quickly and with next to no error are a slap in the viewing public’s face. The average armchair detective today is watching entertainment and real-life forensics never resembled ‘CSI” except perhaps in storylines that were ripped from the headlines.
So what does this mean for criminal justice? Is there a remedy and will the Justice Department, according to spokesman Matthew Miller, “…look forward to working with the law enforcement community and members of Congress to evaluate this report and consider how best to address its findings and recommendations.” Ah, more for the federal government to oversee—a pipe dream of hope, perhaps?
One suggestion has been to remove all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices. Frankly to move their venue would not only cost an enormous amount, both financially and in loss of work productivity, but what good could come of a transition such as this? I don’t believe a change in venue is going to go a long way toward making personnel free of undue internal influence or bias. Science is and should be, based on testing, no matter where it’s performed.
I do think one criteria that would help to staunch the bleeding is to have standardization. A set of uniform guidelines and criteria where every lab performs every procedure in the same way. That, and one suggestion made by the NAS that makes complete sense: the National Institute of Forensic Science should be empowered to uphold not only “best practice standards,” but that they set up mandatory certification and accreditation programs. So that crime labs can be independent of police departments and under the watchful eye of peer-reviewed research. So, as science editor, Kelly Pyrek, author of Forensic Science Under Siege, believes that forensic science will probably welcome NAS directives—but the question remains, will there be a commitment from lawmakers?
Next time we will look at the specific issues with the certain forensic science disciplines that were under question in the report.