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Forensic Oversight

Unvalidated or improper forensic science is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. In approximately 49% of the DNA exonerations nationwide, unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to the underlying wrongful conviction.

These problems include: forensic techniques that have not been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation (such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis and shoe print comparisons); testing that is improperly conducted or analysis that is not accurate (regardless of whether the forensic technique involved is validated); and forensic misconduct (such as fabricated test results and misleading testimony).

In all of this work, the Innocence Project supports the forensic science field in its efforts to secure the funding it deserves as caseloads grow and demand for forensic testing increases. Crime victims, police, prosecutors and courts all gain from an efficient system that minimizes errors and focuses resources on identifying the guilty. The following recommendations, developed by the Innocence Project during years of research and experience, can substantively address forensic problems and help ensure quality forensic analysis.

Federal Support for Research and National Standards/Enforcement

A national forensic science agency with comparable authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can scrutinize the forensic devices and assays that are both in use and in development.  The Innocence Project believes 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. Each area is described below:

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.

State Oversight Commissions or Advisory Boards
Independent panels should be created in each state to help secure adequate resources for forensic work. These independent panels should include a wide range of experts who understand the needs of the forensic community and the criminal justice system alike. Several states have already created commissions or advisory boards; they vary in many ways, but they are independent, expert panels committed to ensuring quality forensics.

Enforcement of Existing Requirements
Every state receives federal grant money under the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant program. The 2004 Justice for All Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush, says states must have oversight mechanisms in place if they receive federal money for their crime labs. Specifically, the law requires jurisdictions seeking federal funding for their forensic facilities to identify an independent, external government entity with an appropriate process to conduct investigations into allegations of negligence or misconduct affecting forensic results. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs administers the grants, and as of January 2009 it has not given applicants the information and guidance they need to comply with the oversight requirement. As a result, a number of states lack the independence and/or process necessary to ensure the integrity of analysis from crime labs and other forensic facilities. Many states have accepted the grants but have not complied with this requirement.