There is no debating that forensic science plays an important role in the criminal justice system. One assumes there also would be little debate over the position that, when forensic science is used to convict people of crimes in the United States, that science should be precise and believable.
We have known for some time, however, that is often not the case. As a recent Rolling Stone article states, “It’s hard to overstate how bad the junk forensics problem is.”
For example, an FBI report states that as of March 2015, 96 percent of the 268 cases it reviewed in which microscopic hair analysts testified against defendants included erroneous testimony. Defendants in at least 35 of those cases received the death penalty, and errors were identified in 33 of those cases.
A Concerning Move By the DOJ
That is why there is significant concern and widespread dissent over a decision earlier this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to disband the nonpartisan National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS). The Department of Justice under the Obama administration established the NCFS in 2013 to improve the reliability of forensic science. The commission includes forensic science service providers, research scientists and academics, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.
Sessions is defunding the commission and replacing it with an in-house adviser and possibly a new commission – one that, as the Rolling Stone article states, will likely be significantly more prosecution friendly.
The move is not surprising. Sessions is a former prosecutor who, as the junior senator from Alabama in 2009, waived away a scathing report from the National Academy of Sciences that found nearly every familiar staple of forensic science scientifically unsound. The report recommended the formation of a national, independent oversight agency designed to ensure effective oversight of forensic evidence, but that recommendation was rejected due to concerns from federal and state law enforcement agencies.
The NCFS was formed as a compromise solution, and now it is being dissolved after only two years.
“The loss of an even partially independent national commission is no trivial matter,” states Erin E. Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, in a New York Times opinion piece published last week. “We know what happens when prosecutors and police officers control forensic science, instead of scientists. We have already lived through an embarrassing parade of wrongful conviction, tragic incompetence, laboratory scandal and absurdly unsupported forensic findings. We have commissioned the studies, read the reports. They brought us to the place we are now, at the cusp of something better. Sadly, with the flick of one prosecutor’s self-interested pen, that vision is now gone.”