Major reforms to the nation's forensic science practices, mandatory certification for forensic scientists and research into the reliability of various methods within the science are among recommendations in a new report from a committee of the National Academy of Sciences.
The long-awaited report, "Strengthening the Forensic Science System in the United States: A Path Forward," was released on Wednesday, Feb. 18, and should "shock the nation," according to a professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
"For nearly 100 years, the public has been led to believe that, when a forensic scientist says `this marking was made by that object,' the conclusion is grounded in good, validated science," said Jay Koehler , a law professor and expert in forensic science errors and exaggerations. "But this report says otherwise. In finding that `no forensic method has been rigorously shown to … demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,' the report should and likely will change the way the public thinks about non-DNA forensic science evidence and testimony."
The new report is the focal point of an international conference, "Forensic Science for the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond," that will be hosted on April 3-4 by the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in Tempe, Ariz. Both co-chairmen of the NAS committee, The Honorable Harry T. Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge and Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Constantine Gatsonis, a Professor of Medical Science and Founding Director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University, will address the conference, as will nearly three dozen other scholars of forensic science, criminalistics and scientific evidence. (For details go to http://lst.law.asu.edu/ .)
"Forensic science is the hand maiden to our legal system, and we want to do it as well as it can be done," Edwards said during an hour-long briefing at the National Academy of Sciences offices in Washington, D.C.
"There are a lot of interested people in the forensic science community who have made it very clear that they are looking for support, both on the research enterprise and the practice enterprise," he said.
In response to questions at the briefing, Edwards said Congress has been briefed on the report, but committee members had not been asked to project costs for implementing its recommendations, nor suggesting potential funding sources.
Professor Michael Saks who, with Koehler and Professor David Kaye , is co-chairing the College of Law's conference, pointed out the report's findings of a "notable dearth" of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods. Also revealing, Saks said, was the committee's recommendation that a body of research is needed to establish the limits and measures of performance and to address the impact of sources of variability and potential bias.
"It's an extremely valuable report," said Saks, whose expertise is in the nature and shortcomings of forensic identification and erroneous convictions. "It offers a sober and authoritative look at weaker areas of forensic science, and sets an agenda for much needed future research."
Kaye added that, even if the report's recommendations for institutional changes are not implemented, it is likely to affect the presentation of scientific evidence in the courts. He predicted the courts will not exclude whole categories of forensic evidence, but that "criminalists will need to be more circumspect in their claims.
"With this report in hand, defense lawyers will be able to impeach claims that a microscopic 'match' between hair fibers, for example, definitely proves that two samples certainly originated from the same individual," said Kaye, an expert in evidence law, statistical and scientific evidence, forensic DNA and criminal procedure.
Among the 13 recommendations in the 237-page report, which was commissioned by Congress in 2006, is that a National Institute of Forensic Science be established and fully funded. It would be an independent agency responsible for developing forensic science into a mature field of multidisciplinary research and practice, founded on the systematic collection and analysis of relevant data.
The report also recommends that Congress provide funding for state and local jurisdictions to remove all public forensic laboratories and facilities out from under administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors' offices.
Carrie Sperling , a visiting associate clinical professor at the College of Law and Executive Director of the Arizona Justice Project, an organization that is housed at the College and works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted, praised the committee's members for their recognition of necessary autonomy.
"The blue-ribbon committee that authored this report has done a great service to the cause of justice," Sperling said. "The strongly worded recommendation that crime labs be taken out from under the control of police and prosecutorial agencies underscores a belief shared by our Justice Project and many in the academic community."
The report takes a broad look at the needs of the nation's crime labs and medical examiner system, discusses the scientific status of many forensic methods, and recommends steps policymakers and practitioners should take to improve the system.
To read more about the committee's recommendations, go to http://www.nas.edu/.