U.S. to commit scientists and new commission to fix forensic science

Alexandra Garcia/The Washington Post - A latent fingerprints analyst demonstrates fingerprint analysis during a tour of the Va. Dept. of Forensic Science Northern Va. Lab, March 15, 2012 .

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The federal government announced Friday that it will commit a scientific agency and launch a national commission to tackle recurring concerns about the quality of forensic evidence used in criminal courts across the country.

A new National Commission on Forensic Science will draft proposals for the U.S. attorney general and Justice Department and draw from expert groups led by a Commerce Department science agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the departments announced.

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“This initiative is led by the principle that scientifically valid and accurate forensic analysis strengthens all aspects of our justice system,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

The announcement marked the broadest federal commitment to establishing national forensic science standards since the rise of the FBI Laboratory during the last century. It comes four years after the National Academy of Sciences urged the White House and Congress to remove crime labs from police and prosecutors’ control or at least to improve standards for crime labs, examiners and researchers. The academy was responding to a drumbeat of crime lab scandals and hundreds of DNA exonerations over the past two decades.

The new 30-member commission will be co-chaired by Justice Department and NIST officials. It will include forensic scientists, researchers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, and will meet several times a year as a federal advisory committee subject to open government requirements.

Most significantly, experts said, it could replace or reorganize the ad hoc groups of practitioners who now govern individual forensic techniques with teams administered by NIST.

Critics have long complained that such groups worked in secret, were too closely tied to the FBI or law enforcement and followed no standard practices, and that such weaknesses were reflected in the variability of how individual crime labs obtain and testify about results.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) welcomed the announcement and noted “striking similarities” between the commission and forensic science reform legislation he first introduced in 2011.

“Today’s announcement is an important first step,” Leahy said in a statement, adding that he will continue to push for stronger oversight of crime labs, enforcement mechanisms and federal funding. "I will continue working to ensure that comprehensive legislation is considered and ultimately signed into law.”

Barry K. Logan, incoming president of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, whose annual meeting begins in Washington this weekend, said he hoped a commission would make legislation more likely by finding areas of common aground among competing interests.

“Forensic science needs federal support for research and development just like any other discipline in science or engineering or medicine does,” Logan said.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which advocates for prisoners seeking exoneration through DNA testing, called the measure “a very good first step” that recognized the need for a scientific agency to help set forensic standards.

“We are hopeful that the White House and Congress will now step up and address the one major gap in this agreement,” funding for basic and applied research and oversight, he said.

 
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