Strengthening Forensic Science: An Update
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee reacted to the National Academies of Sciences report released earlier this year with a Committee Hearing focusing on ways to address the problems in crime labs such as inadequate resources and support, fragmented regulations of the labs and practicioners, and the lack of strong scientific research. In this report, DNA typing analytical methods were presented as scientifically validated before even being used for criminal investigation.
The Chairman of the Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), opened the hearing by acknowledging the importance of the scientific advancements developed through forensics, including the ability to demonstrate criminal guilt or exonerate those who are innocent of crimes. “We need to do all we can to ensure that forensic science rises to the highest scientific standards and has the maximum possible reliability,” Senator Leahy said.
The Senator demonstrated the current severity of the problems in the field by referring to the Cameron Todd Willingham case—a Texas man put to death in 2004 based on forensic evidence and interpretation of alleged arson indicators that have since been found to be without merit. Leahy also referenced the recent Supreme Court decision of Melendez-Diaz vs. MA, which found that forensic analysts must be subject to cross-examination in court, instead of just submitting the reports as evidence. The suggestion is that cross-examination of the forensic examiners may bring to light any practices that do not meet strict standards.
Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) explained that many flaws in forensic science have been exposed by DNA testing, the gold standard of forensic tests. Feingold further stated that despite the defects in other scientific disciplines, jurors still place unwarranted trust in forensic evidence in the courtroom, even when not reliable. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “CSI effect,” based on the television series whose characters solve crimes in less than an hour with science presented as infallible.
While the Senate Judiciary Committee works to investigate the recommendations of the NAS report and determine next steps, the members agreed that at the least, standardization of methods, protocols and reporting should be made a national priority.