Unproven Forensic Evidence: What to Do Next?

By Caleb Groos on September 10, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last February, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report identifying serious deficiencies in forensic sciences and calling for major reforms. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on how to improve forensics. Though alarms over commonly used forensic practices have been rung, the types of reform we will see, if any, remain unclear.

As discussed previously, a rash of crime lab closures in the past year has accompanied the sobering news from the NAS report on forensics.

As reported by NPR, yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue of the NAS forensics report issued in February, entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report described the state of forensics in the U.S. as "badly fragmented" and in need of an overhaul.

Yesterday, Senator Al Franken described the report as "damning" and "terrifying." Congress commissioned the two-year study by the NAS that produced this report. Now, the question is what will be done about it.

The NAS report concluded that almost all commonly used forensic techniques have never been properly scientifically tested. That includes fingerprints, ballistics, blood splatters, bite marks, handwriting and hair analysis, amongst other methods. According to the NAS, only DNA evidence has been scientifically proven to connect defendants to crime scene evidence.

So what did the report call for as steps to improve the situation? Primarily, three things:

  1. Mandatory standards and accreditation for all crime labs.
  2. Research into the reliability of the specific forensic techniques and into human errors associated with much forensic analysis.
  3. Creation of a new, independent, National Institute of Forensic Science. This governing body would establish standard forensics practices and set crime lab accreditation standards.

If NPR, which cites a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is correct, creation of a nationwide body overseeing forensics may be dead on arrival. Economic bad times make it difficult, as does opposition from groups including The National Association of District Attorneys, who do not want a new federal regulator overseeing local forensic practices.

It seems that everyone agrees on the need for national accreditation standards and more research into forensic methods. Even with Congress willing to pay for research, however, the effect it will have on the evidence used to convict hundreds of thousands of Americans remains unclear.

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