After a decade or so of progress in identifying and acknowledging the huge problems with forensic science used to obtain convictions in our nation’s courtrooms, Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month disbanded the nonpartisan National Commission on Forensic Science and announced that the department would no longer review closed cases for inaccurate or unsupported statements by forensic analysts – a process that has already brought into the light a staggering number of convictions obtained with faulty testimony and unreliable fake-science.
Every day in courtrooms across the country, prosecutors rely on forensic sciences to solve crimes and to obtain convictions. Jurors put their faith in the government’s expert witnesses and they often rely on what seems like indisputable scientific evidence of guilt when returning a guilty verdict. Unless there is a scientist on the jury, they are generally unable to distinguish between testimony that is scientifically sound and testimony that is bulls***. The general public relies on prosecutors and judges not to present unsound evidence to them, and, in many cases, it is an uphill battle to get jurors to trust a defense attorney or the defense expert. Are we using forensic science in the courtroom to seek truth and prove that truth to juries? Or are we using forensic science as a tool to obtain convictions without regard to its reliability?
Are we using forensic science in the courtroom to seek truth and prove that truth to juries? Or are we using forensic science as a tool to obtain convictions without regard to its reliability?
The National Academy of Sciences Report
There are huge problems with the use of forensic science and testimony in criminal cases. We have known about these problems for decades. Until recent years, the government has stuck their head in the sand and refused to acknowledge the problems or make any effort to fix them. But, in 2005, the Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act was passed which authorized the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a study on the use of forensic sciences.
The NAS then formed a committee which included members of the forensic science community, attorneys, and a diverse group of scientists. They reviewed published materials, reports, and studies related to the forensic sciences and conducted independent research on the subject. They heard expert testimony from scientists, academics and research scholars, federal agencies, crime labs, medical examiners, law enforcement, and other consultants. Their final report, published in 2009, was comprehensive, methodical, detailed, and lengthy enough that it was published in book form although it is also available for free on NAS’s website.
The report makes it clear that much of the testimony that the government has been using is faulty and based on pseudo-science without any basis in the scientific method. Across the board, almost all areas of forensic science in use are scientifically unsound. The most glaring cause of the faulty science is that there is no oversight by non-biased scientists. The approval and oversight of government use of forensic science is controlled by law enforcement agencies which are inherently biased in seeking convictions, with no review by scientists who could provide an objective review of the methods that are used.
What are we Doing to Improve the Forensic Sciences?
In addition to the 2009 NAS report, the increased use of DNA evidence has highlighted the flaws in the other areas of forensic science. When a defendant is exonerated by DNA evidence, it then calls into question the expert testimony that was used to obtain that conviction. In 2005, the F.B.I. announced that it would no longer conduct bullet lead examinations after it was found that “matches” were meaningless. Following the NAS report, the Justice Department began a review of thousands of cases involving expert testimony regarding microscopic matching of hair samples and found that the analysts gave faulty testimony in 96% of those cases. Last year, the department announced that it would expand its review to include other areas of forensic science. All of this was encouraging – we want the government to use forensic science, but we want them to use real science that is reliable.
Last month, newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice is disbanding the National Commission on Forensic Science and suspending the department’s review of closed cases for inaccurate testimony by forensic analysts. When the NAS’s report was initially released, then-Senator Sessions expressed his opinion that the NAS panel must be wrong, since we’ve been using this forensic testimony for decades . . .
When the National Academy of Sciences’ scathing report was released, Senator Sessions simply waved it away, remarking, “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain” — ignoring the panel of experts who had concluded just that.
It seems that, after a brief, refreshing period of truth in science, our leaders are once again sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring real science. Forensic science, once again, is not a search for the truth – it will be a prosecution tool often with no basis in the scientific method.