|NAS Calls for “Overhauling” a “Badly Fragmented” Forensic Science System:
Major Reforms and New Research
Stephanie Domitrovich & Michael J. Saks
Commissioned by Congress, a large and diverse independent committee of the National Academies of Science (NAS) studied the state of forensic science in the United States for more than two years. This committee encompassed members of both the scientific and legal communities and was co-chaired by the Honorable Harry Edwards (Senior Chief Judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for DC) and Constantine Gatsonis (Director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University). When issuing its congressionally mandated report of over 254 pages, the Committee delivered the message they consistently heard from the voices of the numerous forensic professionals appearing before them:
The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has
serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to
overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in
this country. This can only be done with effective leadership at the highest
levels of both federal and state governments, pursuant to national standards,
and with a significant infusion of federal funds.
The committee applauded advances made in some forensic science disciplines, especially the use of DNA technology, leading to a greater use of forensic evidence in court. The committee recognized forensic science disciplines have produced valuable evidence contributing to the successful prosecution and conviction of criminals, as well as evidence exonerating innocent people. Interpretation of forensic evidence is not infallible since numerous exonerations of people erroneously convicted (discovered, interestingly, through DNA testing) have demonstrated the potential danger of giving undue weight to evidence and testimony from imperfect science, testing and analysis. Forensic scientists should be clearly describing the limits of their analysis within their laboratory reports when they testify.
The committee cautioned judges about assuming the reliability of certain forensic science methodologies before these techniques have been properly studied and accurately verified by scientific research. The committee opined that further improvements in the forensic fields will accomplish three important purposes: assist law enforcement to identify perpetrators with more reliability, reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions and enhance our country’s ability to address homeland security issues.
The committee found shortcomings in existing forensic science operations, which “pose a continuing and serious threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice.” Substantial variation exists among the forensic science operations within law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions on all levels – federal, state and local. Because these entities lack sufficient resources in funding, staff, training and equipment “to promote and maintain strong forensic science laboratory systems,” the overall quality and reliability of the forensic examination of evidence available to the courts suffer in varying substantial degrees across our nation. This fragmented forensic science practice is further complicated by the lack of standardized operational principles and procedures for many forensic science disciplines where uniformity in the certifying of forensic practitioners or accrediting of crime laboratories is lacking. The committee found some areas of forensic science (particularly those concerned with identification of the source of handwriting, fingerprints, bitemarks, toolmarks, etc.) “have yet to establish either the validity of their approach or the accuracy of their conclusions....” Moreover, public forensic science laboratories should be established independent from or autonomous within police departments and prosecutors’ offices to ensure reliable and effective work from forensic scientists and other practitioners in the field.
Since no existing institution seems capable of doing the job, the centerpiece of the committee’s thirteen recommendations is a call for the creation of a new federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), which would undertake solving the manifold problems the committee uncovered, including the long overdue need to bring science to many of the forensic sciences.
To correct some of the existing deficiencies, the committee described the crucial importance of improving undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs, and recommended NIFS work with appropriate organizations and educational institutions to improve and develop graduate education programs. While the practical experience and learning acquired during an internship is critical, training should move beyond apprentice-like transmittal of practices to education based on scientifically valid principles. To make these programs appealing to potential students, attractive scholarships and fellowships would be offered. Furthermore, lawyers and judges should be better trained in scientific methodology, and law schools should enhance this connection by offering courses in the forensic science disciplines and developing joint degree programs.
Another important recommendation offered by the committee is establishing standard terminology to be used in reporting on and testifying about the results of forensic science investigations so that triers of fact may better understand the context of the scientific evidence offered. Not only should the forensic science disciplines have standardized reporting vocabulary and scales, but laboratory reports generated as the result of a scientific analysis should be complete and thorough, and at a minimum contain sections titled “methods and materials,” “procedures,” “results,” and “conclusions” – the better to explain what was done, what was found, and what was inferred.
The committee also recommended promoting more and better research to validate each discipline’s basic premises and techniques by addressing issues of the accuracy, reliability, and validity in the forensic science disciplines. Promoting more research encourages collaboration among various sectors and helps develop tools for advancing measurement, validation, reliability, information sharing, and proficiency. Creating standardized operating procedures reduces potential bias and other sources of human error in forensic practice.
In order for forensic science disciplines to guarantee quality control, assurance and improvement, the committee recommended establishing accreditation and certification standards as well as appropriate quality control procedures at forensic laboratories. To ensure accuracy of forensic analysis, forensic laboratories should establish routine quality assurance and quality control procedures, and, ordinarily, forensic science professionals should be certified before being able to practice or testify within a forensic science discipline. Moreover, a national code of ethics for all forensic science disciplines should be established and enforced through the certification process. Together, improved science, management, and ethics should be able to bring an end to forensic science expert witnesses offering unfounded, exaggerated, and erroneous (or intentionally false) identifications or other evidence to courts.
The committee recognized judicial gatekeeping alone cannot solve the forensic science community’s infirmities since our traditional partisan adversarial process used to determine the admissibility of forensic science evidence is not well suited to finding “scientific truth.” Moreover, most judges and lawyers lack the scientific knowledge necessary to understand and evaluate forensic evidence in a well-informed manner. In fact, the committee concluded that all existing institutions had failed to work to remedy the many problems of the forensic sciences.
The next step is in the court of public opinion and Congress to remedy this “badly fragmented” forensic science system. Our courtrooms should not be laboratories to test the reliability of scientific methods. Instead, the NIFS should be created and fully funded by Congress to tackle these problems and issues with sufficient authority in an objective, non-biased approach. Experts in science and law share a mutual goal – scientific truth inside our courtrooms – and if the committee’s findings and conclusions are heeded, we as citizens will all be better served.