A federal judge Friday returned to a presidential commission on forensic science after the U.S. Justice Department reversed a decision to bar the panel from discussing changes that would give criminal defendants more information about forensic evidence before their trials, a federal official said.
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York had resigned in protest Wednesday from the Obama administration panel, accusing the department of placing “strategic advantage [for prosecutors] over a search for the truth.”
However, Acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates invited Rakoff to return, saying she had not been aware the commission had worked openly on its plans for nearly a year.
Yates told the National Commission on Forensic Science that “it seemed only fair” that it “make its determination as to what information should be provided to the Attorney General.”
“This is obviously a critically important issue to the Department,” Yates said. “We take very seriously our obligation to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial.”
A Justice Department official said the initial decision that pretrial evidence discovery rules were beyond the commission’s scope was made by Yates’s predecessor, James Cole, before his departure Jan. 8. The official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, added that Yates may not agree with the panel’s suggestions.
Rakoff, the commission’s only federal judge, thanked Yates and said he looks forward to a discussion “on the merits.”
Prosecutors routinely share evidence with defense lawyers, but Rakoff and other commissioners propose that criminal defendants be allowed the same access before trial to government forensic evidence as defendants in federal civil court cases.
In an e-mail to colleagues, Rakoff wrote that it is only through disclosure of scientific results and methods “that forensic science can be meaningfully scrutinized in any specific case” and that “trial by ambush” can be avoided.
The panel began work last year in response to growing criticism by scientists and many legal experts about the quality of forensic evidence used in criminal cases. Citing lab scandals and exonerations, critics have said that police and prosecutors exercise too much control over crime labs, which suffer from weak standards over research, testimony and examinations.
The commission is preparing recommendations for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. or his nominated successor, Loretta Lynch.