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10 years after the NAS report, is forensic science more reliable?

Forensic In February 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a ground-breaking report called "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, A Path Forward." Researchers at NAS had looked at the state of forensic science in the U.S. and found serious problems.

According to the NAS, forensic evidence often lacks sufficient scientific underpinning. Forensic testing is too often performed by poorly trained analysts with a demonstrable prosecution bias. When these analysts testify, they routinely exaggerate the certainty of their findings.

The 2009 NAS report urged changes to the way we do forensic science in the United States, including:

  • Establish a wholly independent federal agency to oversee the forensic science community, focusing on scientific principles and unbiased testing
  • Promoting mandatory, standardized accreditation and certification of forensic science professionals, laboratories and education
  • Making forensic laboratories institutionally independent of police and prosecutors

In 2010, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) added its own recommendations to bolster those of the NAS:

  • Improve the culture of science in forensics
  • Adopt a national code of ethics
  • Reinforce the prerequisite of research
  • Provide greater education
  • Ensure transparency and discovery of forensic tests
  • Allocate additional defense resources, especially for the indigent

In 2016, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report called "Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods." It reaffirmed the problems found by the NAS report.

How much has changed since these reports came out?

Unfortunately, it's hard to say how much has changed. Word has gotten out that there are serious, urgent problems with faulty forensic science. According to the NACDL, however, there has been some push-back from law enforcement.

For example, in 2017 the Justice Department chose not to renew the National Commission on Forensic Science. The group had been created in 2013, bringing together scientists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and law enforcement personnel in an effort to improve the reliability of forensic science.

And, even though the FBI has itself brought forward evidence that some common forensic techniques are flawed or have been misused, the Justice Department withdrew plans for an expanded review of FBI testimony. This could leave wrongful convictions without remedy.

The NACDL also notes increased resistance by prosecutors and law enforcement to the establishment of scientifically valid foundations for forensic techniques and to greater scientific independence among forensic analysts and labs.

Last year, a nonprofit was created to continue much of the good work that was undertaken by the National Commission on Forensic Science, while expanding the goals to education as well. The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences (CIFS) was co-founded by Dean Strang, Jerry Buting and University of Wisconsin law professor Keith Findley.

CIFS is a privately funded charitable institution so it can be shielded from much of the politics that caused the downfall of the National Commission. CIFS has created the first program in the nation that puts law students and graduate students in the natural sciences together in a classroom, and then a second semester working on real cases.

The curriculum is designed to be exportable to every university with a law school and CIFS expects dozens of similar courses at universities across the country within the next five years. An undergraduate curriculum is also being developed so that the validation studies recommended by the NAS and PCAST reports can be accomplished by students working for credits.

CIFS is also devoted to judicial education, to assisting lawyers in challenging flawed forensic analysis, and to serving clients with serious flawed forensic evidence issues for free. The organization is not focused on the defense or prosecution sides of criminal cases. Rather, it seeks to increase the reliability of evidence in criminal trials, so that the right people are convicted and the right ones are acquitted. CIFS's is working to improve the reliability and safety of the criminal justice system itself. For more information, see https://cifsjustice.org/#/main.

It is crucial to ensure that evidence that relies on science is actually scientific. Forensic evidence must be tested independently without bias towards law enforcement.

Flawed forensic science is the second-leading cause of wrongful convictions. To continue as we have been since before the 2009 NAS report is to knowingly put more innocent people behind bars, while allowing the guilty perpetrator to remain free and commit new crimes.

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