Four Years After Report Decrying Forensic Sciences, a Sign of Progress

Chemical & Engineering News has published an update of forensic science reform efforts entitled, “First Steps Toward Forensics Reform – New forensics commission to recommend guidelines, design policies.” The article provides a history of efforts taken thus far in response to the 2009 report by the National Research Council, which alerted the nation to many shortcomings in the reliability of the forensic sciences and their use in the courtroom.

According to the article (here) by Andrea Widener:

“Four years after the NRC report was released—and nearly as long as the White House has been studying it—the federal government has taken its first official steps to address the problem. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) have joined forces to create a National Commission on Forensic Science. That body will recommend guidelines for federal, state, and local forensics laboratories, as well as design policy on ethics, training, and certification for forensics professionals.

…The forensics commission will consist of 30 members from throughout the legal, law enforcement, and science communities. People interested in being on the commission can nominate themselves; the selections will be made by officials at DOJ and NIST—the two agencies that signed a formal agreement creating the commission.

Its recommendations for reform will go to the attorney general, who can endorse them for DOJ’s own labs and encourage their adoption by labs associated with the 17,000 individual law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The commission doesn’t have any specific enforcement power outside the attorney general’s endorsement—that power would have to come from Congress. But the commission’s recommendations will be available to the public so they can be adopted by the larger forensics community even if the attorney general rejects them.

In addition to the new forensics commission, NIST and DOJ agreed that NIST will take over running 21 guidance groups—previously called scientific working groups—that study specific areas of forensic science and make recommendations on best practices. Many of these groups now are funded by DOJ, some by other parts of the federal government, and others are independent.

In the past, the quality of reports from the guidance groups has been mixed. The idea is that NIST, which has set standards in different fields for decades, can help the groups become more consistent in their recommendations and guide their work toward areas of greatest need.

‘Let’s expose the scientific bases for what we are doing,’ said Kenneth E. Melson, who was cochair of a federal subcommittee examining how to address the NRC report’s recommendations until he retired from DOJ in September 2012. ‘It is the first step to a lot more federal involvement.’

The forensics commission isn’t exactly what the National Academies panel recommended in its report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”

The panel wanted Congress and the White House to create an independent federal agency to lead forensics reform and fund the necessary research. It said no existing agency has the independence or connections required to overhaul the entire forensics system, which would involve creating standards for forensic disciplines, increasing oversight of labs and individuals, and funding more research into forensic science’s base.

It quickly became clear after the report’s February 2009 release, however, that the Administration and Congress had no appetite for building a new agency, according to observers.”

The article also notes:

Since the NRC report, most courts have continued to allow forensic evidence, several lawyers and judges reported at the AAFS meeting. Most criminal cases are tried at the state and local levels, where judges are wary of not allowing evidence, such as fingerprint or ballistic analysis, that has been accepted in court for decades.

‘It is one thing to establish standards. It is another for those standards to be translated to the courtroom,’ Michael T. Ambrosino, special counsel in charge of DNA and forensic litigation for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., explained at the AAFS meeting.

The article concludes with this encouragement:

“And Congress is deeply interested in guiding forensics reform. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) have said they will introduce legislation this year aimed at reforming forensic science.

Leahy praised the DOJ-NIST forensics commission as an important first step—one that is similar to what he proposed in legislation last year. ‘I will continue working to ensure that comprehensive legislation is considered and ultimately signed into law.'”

4 responses to “Four Years After Report Decrying Forensic Sciences, a Sign of Progress

  1. This is actually quite significant, because it legitimizes the findings of the NAS Report. I expect progress will be slow, but it’s certainly much better than no progress at all.

  2. Thank you, Phil. Your opinion on this provides encouragement!

  3. freethewronged

    Reblogged this on Upside Down.

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