Scientific Establishment Validates Defense Bar’s Long-Held Concerns About Junk Science
National Academy of Sciences Finds ''Serious Deficiencies'' in Nation''s Crime Labs
Washington, DC (February 18, 2009) -- A much anticipated report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on the state of forensic science in the U.S. and its recommendations to fix a broadly flawed system was released today. Finding an inconsistent system rife with “serious deficiencies,” lacking practitioner and laboratory independence, standards, oversight, and certification, the NRC called today for major reforms, including the establishment of a wholly independent federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), to address the manifold problems with the current science and system.
The report explicitly recognizes that there’s a world of difference between forensic science as an investigatory tool or method and proof of innocence or guilt in court. One example of this type of forensic work cited the report is forensic odontology. “[F]orensic odontology might not be sufficiently grounded in science to be admissible under Daubert, but this discipline might be able to reliably exclude a suspect, thereby enabling law enforcement to focus its efforts on other suspects,” according to the report.
With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to be able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” according to the NRC.
“It is heartening that the mainstream scientific community today has validated so much of what the defense bar has been asserting for many years in the courts, the legislatures and in the public arena,” said John Wesley Hall, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “This report should help avoid some of the heartache and injustice associated with the wrongful convictions and imprisonment resulting from junk science in the courtroom, and the myth that forensic science is infallible.”
“The search for truth does not favor the prosecution or the defense, and neither should publicly funded forensic labs. The defense bar has long maintained that forensic laboratories and their personnel should be independent of the police and prosecution. Proper training of lab personnel and accreditation of laboratories helps ensure quality control, quality assurance and public confidence in the evidence,” Hall said.
The NRC points to fundamental problems such as the lack of standardized terminology and reporting as having “a profound effect on how the trier of fact in a criminal trial or civil matter perceives and evaluates scientific evidence.” In this context, the report cites the example of the wide-ranging, unstandardized array of terms used in reports and court testimony to describe evidentiary material such as hair, fingerprints and fibers – “match,” “consistent with,” “identical,’ “similar in all respects tested,” and “cannot be excluded as the source of.” But the certitude implied by such language can have a great impact on juries and judges when more reliable evidence is lacking or weak.
The NRC contrasts nuclear DNA analysis, in which it asserts “the chances of a false positive are miniscule” and “the likelihood of such errors is quantifiable,” with other claimed forms of forensic identification like fingerprint analysis. As to the latter, it found that “[t]here is some evidence that fingerprints are unique to each person, and it is plausible that careful analysis could accurately discern whether two prints have a common source.” But the report challenges claims that these analyses have zero-error rates as not plausible. Instead, as respects fingerprint analysis, the report describes specific research that the NRC believes could “begin to attach confidence limits to conclusions about whether a print is linked to a particular person.”
Among a plethora of other elements of America’s forensic science system that require “overhaul,” according to the NRC, are the need for mandatory, standardized certification and accreditation of forensic science education and laboratories and certification of forensic science professionals. The report also cites the need for institutional independence of public forensic laboratories, which the NRC found often hold a prosecutorial bias.
The audio of the Feb. 18 2009, National Research Council briefing, as well as its press release and the text of the report is available at http://www.national-academies.org/.