National Academy of Sciences Urges Comprehensive Reform of U.S. Forensic Sciences
In a groundbreaking report, nation’s leading scientists and legal experts call for national oversight and research to ensure reliability in solving crimes
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(WASHINGTON, DC; February 18, 2009) – In a watershed development that could transform forensic science nationwide, the National Academy of Sciences today released a comprehensive report finding that the forensic sciences need significantly strengthened oversight, research and support in order to play a more reliable role in identifying perpetrators of crime, protecting the wrongly accused and ensuring public safety.
The report, released by a diverse committee of scientific and legal experts who have spent two years studying these issues and holding public hearings at Congress’ request, recommends the creation of an independent, science-based federal entity that would direct comprehensive research and evaluation in the forensic sciences, establish scientifically validated standards and oversee their consistent application nationwide.
“This unprecedented report shows that many forensic techniques which are relied on in courtrooms every day lack scientific support. This report is a major breakthrough toward ensuring that so-called scientific evidence in criminal cases is solid, validated and reliable,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “For too long, forensic science professionals have not had the support or management needed to identify the real strengths and weaknesses of different assays and techniques. “This report provides the roadmap for rectifying that problem, and we look forward to working with Congress and other key stakeholders to implement the report’s recommendations.”
Starting in the late 1980s, DNA analysis has helped identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent nationwide. While DNA testing was developed through extensive scientific research at top academic centers, many other forensic techniques – such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, fingerprint analysis, firearms, tool marks and shoe print analysis – have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation. Since experts agree that only 5-10% of a crime lab’s work involves DNA testing and that overwhelmingly they rely on other forensic disciplines, it is all the more imperative that these other disciplines be subjected to rigorous evaluation to ensure their reliability.
Neufeld testified at two of the NAS’s five public hearings, and the Innocence Project shared extensive data and background with the committee. The Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 and is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, assists prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing and works to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. To date, 232 people nationwide have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing. In approximately half of those cases, unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to the wrongful conviction, according to the Innocence Project.
In one of more than 100 such cases nationwide, Innocence Project client Roy Brown was convicted of murder near Syracuse, New York. His conviction was based largely on evidence from the prosecution’s forensic dentist that bite marks on the victim’s body were “entirely consistent” with Brown’s teeth. Brown served 15 years in prison before DNA testing on the saliva from those bite marks proved his innocence – and identified the actual perpetrator of the crime – in 2007. “I can still remember looking at the jury in my trial when they heard the scientist testify. That’s when I knew it was all over and I was going to prison, probably for the rest of my life. Junk science sent me to prison, but real science proved my innocence,” Brown said. “We have to make sure that this doesn’t keep happening to other people, that our system relies on solid science. I hope this report can lead to real change.” Bite mark analysis is not rooted in science and was singled out in the NAS commission’s hearings as one of the disciplines that should not be relied on without substantial research showing its validity or reliability.
“Post-conviction DNA evidence has assisted in the case-by-case exoneration of many individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, but we really need the framework and tools to fix the problems upstream and avoid so many wrongful convictions in the first place,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “Comprehensive improvement and strengthening of the forensic sciences in this country will provide that framework.”
In today’s report, the NAS committee proposes the creation of a federal entity to stimulate basic and applied research, set national standards for forensic sciences and enforce those standards – a recommendation that is already garnering strong support from policymakers, legal experts and forensic professionals. "As policymakers and scientific advisors implement these recommendations, it will be critical to establish a federal entity to oversee the research, development, funding, and application of the forensic sciences; and to set the standards, regulations, and reporting requirements that will strengthen the ongoing validity of the forensic sciences," said Dr. Donald Kennedy, co-chair of the National Academies' Project on Science, Technology and Law and emeritus editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"To ensure that the assessments made and the standards enacted are based on rigorous and objective scientific methods, this oversight entity should be housed within a scientific agency of the federal government," he continued.
Released at a particularly volatile time in our nation’s economic history, the NAS committee’s recommendations also offer an opportunity for improved efficiency in government operations and strategic support for new technologies and leadership in the private sector. In the last decade, the forensics community benefited from an extraordinary collaboration between the academic and private sectors in the development of DNA technology – which, in turn, provided a boon for American private companies and a scientifically rigorous technology.
Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice, who has conducted detailed reviews of two forensic science labs, including the FBI Lab, said:
"These recommendations will be extraordinarily important in shaping the future direction of forensic science in this country. For too long, the work of forensic labs has been neglected and the science practiced in some of these labs has lacked the rigor and professionalism that are critical to ensuring fair and just results in our criminal justice system. If properly implemented, these recommendations will lead to greater investments in forensic science and in forensic labs, including in the training and certification of forensic scientists. In turn, this will lead to a higher quality of justice."
Read more reactions to today's report from lawmakers, scientists, exonerees and crime victims.
For more information about the NAS committee reviewing this topic and the committee’s charge, please visit the NAS project website.