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Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Strengthening Forensic Science

September 18, 2009
by Astrid Fiano, DOTmed News Writer
The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary recently held a further hearing on problems in forensic science. The hearing continues the investigation from March of this year on the standards of forensic science, which focused on a February National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report detailing the need to establish and enforce best practices in forensics. That report had noted problems in labs including lack of strong scientific research, adequate resources and support, and lack of a unified regulation of crime labs and practitioners.

Chairman of the Committee Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) began the current 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 then pointed out that the Committee has continued to hear information about severe problems in the field, even a case of a possibly innocent man executed due to a conviction based in part on forensic testimony and evidence. (It was the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004, whose trial for arson-murder involved forensic evidence and interpretation of alleged arson indicators). Senator Leahy recognized the recent Supreme Court decision of Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts, which held that forensic examiners must present their evidence in court and be subject to cross-examination, rather than just submitting reports of their findings.

Senator Leahy also described the disparity between television's "CSI" effect--implying that all forensics are infallible and well-funded, when in actuality (according to statistics from the Department of Justice) the backlog of forensic exams in 2005 was up 24 percent from just three years earlier. In addition, one out of every five labs does not meet National Academy of Crime Lab Director standards for accreditation.

Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) also discussed problems in the field including scandals in crime labs and unsupported scientific conclusions being presented at trial by expert witnesses. Ironically, Sen. Feingold explained, DNA testing--one of the most reliable of forensic tests, has exposed the flaws of other areas of forensic science. In spite of that fact, Feingold said jurors still place inordinate weight on forensic evidence in the courtroom, even when not reliable.

The witnesses at the hearing included Eric Buel, Ph.D., Director, Vermont Forensic Laboratory Vermont Department of Public Safety. Dr. Buel testified on the importance of quality assurance in forensic science. He agreed with the NAS report that all laboratories performing forensic science should be accredited--including staff certification facilitated through a process determined by an existing national organization. Dr. Buel stated that while the vast majority of forensic labs are accredited, there are still thousands of forensic service providers housed in local law enforcement agencies and not accredited. Dr. Buel said the process of accrediting all forensic service providers will require much effort and significant changes in staffing, as well as on-site inspections and reviews to insure compliance. Labs should institute methods meeting strict scientific scrutiny and a national level of standardization to ensure the same application across the country. Nonetheless, he emphasized that standardization of methods, protocols, and reports should be a national priority.

Another witness, Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project (affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law), testified that many of commonly used forensic methods (other than DNA) have not been scientifically validated, and currently no formal means to validate new forensic technologies exist. The current techniques Mr. Neufeld states are not validated include hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, latent fingerprint comparisons, firearm/tool mark analysis and shoe and tire print comparisons. In addition, he said there is little research on the limits or measures of performances of these techniques to address variability and inadvertent bias. By comparison, Neufeld says, applied sciences including medicine and engineering routinely involve such research as well as comprehensive reviews by conflict-free entities including the Food and Drug Administration. Mr. Neufeld noted also that problems exist in the field in occasions of imprecise or exaggerated expert report writing and testimony.

By contrast, Neufeld explained that DNA-typing analytical methods were scientifically validated before even being used for criminal investigation, including the National Academy of Sciences using two reviews of data to set standards for interpretation and limits on what analysts can say about DNA results. Forensic DNA testing was developed under a process similar to the testing given medical devices.

However, another witness testified that the severe criticism of the forensics field is unjustified. Barry Matson, Deputy Director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the Chief Prosecutor for the Alabama Computer Forensic Laboratories agreed that some "regrettable incidences" have happened in forensic settings but was emphatic that these incidences were not to the level that projects such as the NAS report indicated. He stated that the NAS report erroneously focused on perceived biases in the forensics and law enforcement communities. Mr. Matson also testified that the NAS report has had distinct negative impact on prosecutors in previous convictions, and current prosecutions now being challenged by the information in the NAS report.

The Hearing testimony can be accessed at: