Imagine this: A cop pulls you over and arrests you because you match the description of someone wanted for a heinous crime. You are innocent, but after being charged and brought to trial, you watch as experts testify with “scientific certainty” that hair and footprints at the scene match your own, and you are led from the courtroom in shackles.
This may seem like a scene straight out of a TV melodrama, but this scenario happens in real life far too often. A number of forensic techniques - including hair- and footprint-matching, mark analysis, bloodstain-pattern analysis and others - lack scientific validity and reliability yet are used frequently in our nation’s courtrooms.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, no fewer than 490 people have been exonerated since 1989 after being convicted on the basis of false or misleading forensic techniques. Just last month, a Michigan man was freed from jail 41 years after his conviction after prosecutors agreed that evidence against him - based on an analysis of a single hair - didn’t meet FBI standards. Another Michigan man was released in May after 25 years in prison following a faulty conviction based on bullets matched to a gun.
During the past decade, thanks largely to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, we have made important progress in ridding our nation’s courtrooms of such scenarios. But the Justice Department’s recent decision to not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science - the primary forum through which scientists, forensic lab technicians, lawyers and judges have worked together to guide the future of forensic science - threatens to stall and even reverse that progress.
The NAS report found that too few forensic disciplines, other than DNA analysis, have adequate scientific basis. The report also found that experts often overstate their claims in testimony, invoking unscientific terms like “scientific certainty” and claiming 100 percent accuracy.
The Justice Department is the responsible agency for prosecuting federal crimes and, in this role, makes frequent use of forensic techniques. It is therefore not appropriate for the Justice Department to be the evaluator of forensic practices. In the 2009 report, the NAS strongly recommended that to avoid a conflict of interest, an entity independent of the Justice Department should oversee forensic standards.
While the Justice Department did not fully embrace this recommendation, it went ahead and, in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, helped create the National Commission on Forensic Science. From 2013 until earlier this year, the commission provided a venue for all of the relevant stakeholders to discuss issues facing forensic labs and foundational science and to advance a path forward to strengthen forensic practices and research.
By building consensus among these diverse groups who all care deeply about the integrity of our justice system, the commission promoted important reforms, such as mandatory accreditation of crime labs used by the government and the immediate disclosure to defense counsels of a government forensic expert’s entire file relating to a defendant. Many of the commission’s recommendations have been adopted not only by the Justice Department but also by state and local crime labs. They have also resulted in changes both to prosecutorial practices and to codes of professional conduct for those working in forensic laboratories. With these improvements in providing justice, it is not time to pull back from the forensic commission.
More than 250 individuals and groups, including leading legal scholars and scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recently submitted public comments to the Justice Department on how to proceed on forensic science. The overwhelming majority of comments urged the department to ensure that there be an independent and transparent oversight body for forensic science like the now- suspended commission.
For now, the Justice Department has taken the opposite view, that there is no conflict with having internal department evaluators oversee forensic science research that their prosecutors hope to use in the courtroom. We urge the attorney general and the department to take a thorough look at the many thoughtful comments from concerned citizens and quickly reconsider this approach. Forensic science requires conflict-free independent evaluation if it is to advance the truth. People’s lives and our society’s faith in the American justice system are at stake.
Holt is CEO at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Rakoff is a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York.