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Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Strengthening Forensic Science

by Astrid Fiano, DOTmed News Writer | September 18, 2009

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.