Published: February 4, 2009
Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.
The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.
The result of a two-year review, the report follows a series of widely publicized crime laboratory failures, including the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., and Muslim convert who was wrongly arrested in the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000.
American examiners matched Mr. Mayfield’s fingerprint to those found at the scene, although Spanish authorities eventually convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty. Mr. Mayfield was released, and the federal government settled with him for $2 million.
In 2005, Congress asked the National Academy to assess the state of the forensic techniques used in court proceedings. The report’s findings are not binding, but they are expected to be highly influential.
“This is not a judicial ruling; it is not a law,” said Michael J. Saks, a psychology and law professor at Arizona State University who presented fundamental weaknesses in forensic evidence to the academy. “But it will be used by others who will make law or will argue cases.”
Legal experts expect that the report will give ammunition to defense lawyers seeking to discredit forensic procedures and expert witnesses in court. Lawyers could also use the findings in their attempts to overturn convictions based on spurious evidence. Judges are likely to use the findings to raise the bar for admissibility of certain types of forensic evidence and to rein in exaggerated expert testimony.
The report may also drive federal legislation if Congress adopts its recommendations. Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, who has pushed for forensic reform, said, “My hope is that this report will provide an objective and unbiased perspective of the critical needs of our crime labs.”
Forensics, which developed within law enforcement institutions — and have been mythologized on television shows from “Quincy, M.E.” to “CSI: Miami” — suffers from a lack of independence, the report found.
The report’s most controversial recommendation is the establishment of a federal agency to finance research and training and promote universal standards in forensic science, a discipline that spans anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and law. The report also calls for tougher regulation of crime laboratories.
In an effort to mitigate law enforcement opposition to the report, which has already delayed its publication, the draft focuses on scientific shortcomings and policy changes that could improve forensics. It is largely silent on strictly legal issues to avoid overstepping its bounds.
Perhaps the most powerful example of the National Academy’s prior influence on forensic science was a 2004 report discrediting the F.B.I. technique of matching the chemical signatures of lead in bullets at a crime scene to similar bullets possessed by a suspect. As a result, the agency had to notify hundreds of people who potentially had been wrongfully convicted.
In its current draft report, the National Academy wrote that the field suffered from a reliance on outmoded and untested theories by analysts who often have no background in science, statistics or other empirical disciplines.
Although it is not subject to significant criticism in the report, the advent of DNA profiling clearly set the agenda. DNA evidence is presented in less than 10 percent of all violent crimes but has revolutionized the entire science of forensics. While DNA testing has helped to free more than 200 wrongfully convicted people, “DNA was a shock to police culture and created an alternative scientific model, which promoted standardization, transparency and a higher level of precision,” said Paul Giannelli, a forensic science expert at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who presented his research to the National Academy. Enforcement officials, Mr. Giannelli said, “chose to say they never make mistakes, but they have little scientific support, and this report could blow them out of the water.”
Keep a close eye on this one.Professor Giannelli is oone of the most respected evidence authorities in the United States.He has authored no less than nine textbooks on the subject and has been cited as authoritative in previous Supreme Court decisions.
A major legislative reform battle could be coming up, if Senator Shellby gets his way;and if he does we may anticipate siome strenous resistence from the executive officials responsible for these outrages.