The Need for Forensic Reform
A newly formed coalition is at work across the country to promote and support efforts for the creation of federal forensic standards.
On October 19, the
Just Science Coalition
(which the Innocence Project convenes) announced the launch of the Campaign for Forensic Standards and the formation of a national outreach network, a group of 24 state leaders promoting the adoption of federal forensic standards to prevent wrongful convictions and help apprehend the true perpetrators of crime.
In more than half of the 244 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing to date, unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in the wrongful conviction. These cases involve a wide range of issues — from blatant misconduct to reliance on practices that haven’t been validated through empirical study. Since experts estimate that only 5 to 10 percent of criminal cases involve DNA evidence, it’s certain that there are many wrongful convictions involving unvalidated science that will never lead to DNA exonerations.
Developments in recent weeks in the Cameron Todd Willingham case in Texas starkly illustrate example of the need for forensic standards nationwide. Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three children. Arson analysts testified at his trial that they found signs of arson at his house, but they were using outdated methodology in their review. Independent analyses by seven arson experts since Willingham’s conviction have found no evidence that the fire was intentionally set. Further reports have debunked every piece of evidence used at trial against Willingham.
At the request of the Innocence Project, the Texas Forensic Science Commission began an investigation in 2006 into the arson science used to convict Willingham. The panel contracted with an independent arson expert to review the case, and he was expected to present his findings earlier this month. Days before the hearing, however, three members of the panel were replaced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and the meeting was cancelled.
The Willingham case shows exactly why it is absolutely vital that Congress create an independent, science-based entity to develop forensic standards and support research and oversight of forensic practices.
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