News 02.03.09

The Need for a National Forensic Science Agency

The misapplication of forensics and misplaced reliance on unvalidated or unreliable testing methods constitute the second greatest contributor to wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA testing.  In contrast to DNA analysis, most other forensic disciplines have no independent clinical application, nor did they benefit from comprehensive basic research or review.  For instance, hair microscopy, bitemark comparisons, firearms analysis, and toolmarks analysis were all developed solely to solve crime.  These disciplines have evolved primarily through their use in individual cases; and without the benefit of basic research or adequate financial resources, applied research has also been minimal.  In fact, many forensic testing methods have been applied with little or no scientific validation and with inadequate assessments of their robustness or reliability. Furthermore, they lacked scientifically acceptable standards for quality assurance and quality control before their implementation in cases.

Congress has recognized the need to assess the state of forensic sciences, and in 2006 called for the creation of a National Academy of Sciences committee to identify the needs for the forensic science community.  One of the tasks of the NAS Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community is to disseminate a compilation of best practices and guidelines regarding the collection and analysis of forensic evidence to help ensure quality and consistency in the use of forensic technologies and techniques.   

Over the past two years, the NAS Committee has met eight times and held five public hearings where they heard testimony from experts in the forensic sciences, criminal justice and law enforcement, academia, and advocacy, including the Innocence Project, to inform their recommendations and report findings.  It is expected that the NAS will release their final report in mid to late February of this year.  While the NAS report itself is not yet available, the public hearings have illustrated that the nation’s forensic science community needs significant support and direction from the federal government in order to ensure that forensics in the criminal justice system are science-based, reliable, and just.  

During testimony presented to the NAS Committee by Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, our organization called for the creation of a federal body, with comparable authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to scrutinize the forensic devices and assays that are both in use and in development.  We believe that a national forensic science agency should focus on three main areas that will most improve the quality of forensics used in the criminal justice system: research; assessment of validity and reliability; and quality assurance, accreditation and certification of laboratories and practitioners.


Research:

A national forensic science agency would identify research needs, establish priorities, and design criteria for reviewing forensic disciplines.  Funding should also exist for expanded basic and applied research in order to test the validity of extant forensic methods, devices, and assays; and help develop new technologies to solve crime.  


Assessment of Validity and Reliability:

This agency would also be responsible for reviewing both existing and new research data to determine whether a technique, device, or assay is scientifically valid and reliable for use in casework, and what the parameters of the assay should include.  Furthermore, the agency should ensure the discontinuation of any invalid or unreliable methods, and support others only to the extent their practitioners present and interpret data within scientifically acceptable parameters.  


Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Certification:

A national forensic science agency would set and oversee enforcement of standards for public and private laboratories, as well as for individuals conducting forensic tests and examinations with intended use in U.S. federal and state courts.  Quality controls and quality assurance programs must secure the integrity of the ultimate forensic product in the laboratory and in the courthouse.  Forensic oversight should be obligatory, and non-compliance with accreditation and certification should allow for a loss of accreditation or individual certification and a cessation of business.

Without the strong, well-funded, and well-staffed functions we have outlined, the integrity of key forensic disciplines will continue to be compromised and the quality of the product will vary from case to case and state to state.  And as we know through our work with DNA, the consequences of doing nothing are extraordinary.  On average, exonerated individuals spent 12 years in prison while true perpetrators of crimes remained at liberty and free to commit further acts of violence.  Indeed, in 40% of the 232 exonerations the real perpetrators have been identified, and law enforcement agencies have documented dozens of rapes and murders committed after the arrest of the wrong person – which prematurely closed investigations – and before the identification and apprehension of the real perpetrator. Improving forensics will make it more likely that law enforcement will identify and apprehend perpetrators of crime and successfully prosecute them.  Public safety requires nothing less.

Our work and the work of many others have shown the catastrophic cost of such a lack of research, standards, and oversight. The Committee’s work has shown that the nation’s forensic science community is ready and willing to work with the federal government, law enforcement, and other scientists and experts to ensure that criminal justice is more science-based, more reliable and ultimately more just.  It is critical that they be comprehensively supported in this endeavor.  

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