NAS: Nation's Forensic Sciences Need Overhaul

By Matthew Harwood

The state of forensic science in the United States, which has too often sent innocent people to prison for crimes they did not commit, needs to be overhauled, says a report from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council.

The report recommends that the federal government create the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), which would be empowered to set and enforce best practices for the disparate forensic fields, accredit  forensic laboratories and certify forensic scientists, and promote scholarly and peer-reviewed research into perfecting forensic practices and technologies.

Although great advances have been made in many areas of forensic science like DNA technology, the report finds that too many people have been wrongly convicted of crimes they didn't commit because of "faulty forensic analyses." Often the convictions are based on overvalued expert testimony and imprecise testing and analysis.

According to the report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," the only real reliable forensic science is nuclear DNA analysis. Besides that, "no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source."

Recent history has borne this out.

In between 1989 and November 2008, 232 people have been released from prison due to post-conviction DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to free prisoners wrongly convicted of a crime. Seventeen of those released were on death row. Over half of the prisoners exonerated were African American.

The reports adds that although some forensic methods are better than others, like fingerpring analysis versus bite mark analysis, there is still too much variation between and within fields. Often, decisions are based more on an expert's interpretation of the forensic evidence and not on peer-reviewed, scientifically sound forensic methods.

Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, who testified at two of the public hearings, lauded the report.

“This unprecedented report shows that many forensic techniques which are relied on in courtrooms every day lack scientific support.  This report is a major breakthrough toward ensuring that so-called scientific evidence in criminal cases is solid, validated and reliable,” he said.

No more than 10 percent of a crime laboratory's workload involves DNA testing, meaning other, less reliable forensic sciences are used.

"The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity," the report declares.

Three improvements would result by strengthening the rigor and reliability of the nation's forensic science system, according to the report: criminals will be more reliably identified and prosecuted, innocent people would find themselves behind bars much less, and homeland security would be enhanced.


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