A number of crime laboratories have come under investigation after shoddy, suspect, or fraudulent results were uncovered. The National Institute of Justice has maintained its support of research in forensic science for criminal justice. And there have been a number of highly-publicized exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of faulty forensic evidence.
This is progress. In , the Department of Justice established a National Commission on Forensic Science, in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, purportedly to enhance the practice and improve the reliability of forensic science. In , NIST established the Organization of Scientific Area Committees to coordinate the development of standards and guidelines to improve the quality and consistency of work in the forensic science community.
But NIST does not see its role as ensuring that a scientific basis exists for forensic methods. And NIST is not a standard-making agency, nor is it a regulator. As a result of the absence of a national, independent agency to oversee forensic research and practices, there is still too much forensic evidence admitted supporting criminal prosecutions that falls well short of the types of requirements that we set in our regulations of food, cosmetics, and even television programs.
Perhaps most critically, we still do not know what we do not know. We need better scientific studies and standards to shape the work of forensic practitioners and regulate the admission of forensic evidence. This means that more top scientists must engage in research on forensic methods and appear in court to explain the evidence. This will allow judges to better understand forensic evidence and to more clearly and accurately instruct jurors on the limits of the evidence.
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Share this story Help us advocate for the innocent by sharing the latest news from the Innocence Project. Under the category of research, the committee determined that some of the forensic science disciplines need further research to provide what the scientific community commonly uses as the proper underlying validation for some of the methods in common use and to provide the basis for more precise statements about their reliability and precision.
Because a method has not been sufficiently validated does not make it invalid. In order to accomplish this, we need more funding for research and a stronger, broader research base. The disciplines based on biological or chemical analysis, such as toxicology, drug analysis, and some trace evidence subdisciplines such as explosives, fire debris, polymers to include paint and fiber analysis, are generally well validated and should not be included in the same category as the more experience-based disciplines, such as fingerprints, firearms and toolmarks, and other pattern-recognition types of analysis.
There are variations within this latter group; for example, there is more available research and protocols for fingerprint analysis than for bitemarks.
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We need studies, for instance, that look at large populations of fingerprints and toolmarks so as to quantify how many sources might share similar features. In addition to investigating the limits of the techniques themselves, research is also needed on the effects of context and examiner bias. In the realm of standardization and education our report raised concerns about the lack of mandatory requirements for professional certification and for laboratory accreditation and the variability in the way forensic science results are reported in courts. That number is even higher today.
Strengthening forensic science in the United States : a path forward
But more can be done. Our report calls for certification that is based on written examinations, supervised practice, proficiency testing, and adherence to a code of professional practice. The report explicitly calls for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, in collaboration with the proposed National Institute of Forensic Science NIFS to be involved in setting standards for certification and accreditation and in developing protocols and best practices for forensic analysis, using existing programs as a basis.
Assisting laboratories which have not yet been accredited is a lengthy process. Each policy and method must be reviewed to determine if it is in compliance and, if not, what must be done to bring it into compliance. This process can take a few years. That is not to say that the work done by the laboratory is suspect during the process, but that the standards and criteria are quite specific.
Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
Strong leadership is needed to adopt and promote an aggressive, long-term agenda to strengthen forensic science. Our report strongly urges Congress to establish a new, independent National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts, establish and enforce standards for forensic science professionals and laboratories, and oversee education standards.
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Our committee carefully considered whether such a governing body could be established within an existing agency, and determined that it could not. While we recognize the difficulty with this task, we believe that the root of the struggles this community has is the lack of federal support and guidance. However, while we were impressed with the technical abilities of three NIST staffers who briefed our committee, and in fact had a NIST scientist as a member of our committee, we concluded that NIST does not have expertise in enough of the essential areas to play the governance role that forensic science needs.
First, while NIST has a strong reputation in some aspects of forensic science, it would not be seen by that community as a natural leader. In large part that is because the context in which forensic science operates is unique. For example, forensic science must make the most of whatever evidence has been collected, a situation that is not always amenable to prescriptive standards. And the recommended new federal entity must be sensitive to the interplay between forensic sciences and the criminal justice system, which is unfamiliar territory for NIST.
That is likely to be a difficult task, one that requires knowledge of relationships among those operations and between federal, state, and local jurisdictions.
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It is a challenge to which NIST is not well suited. As I already indicated, a key recommendation of our report is to build up the research base and educational infrastructure that will enable forensic science to move forward. NIST does not have much experience in establishing and running an extramural research program, and its ability to stimulate new academic forensic programs and strengthen existing ones is untested.
Another key requirement is to strengthen the practices of forensic science.