Leading U.S. science organizations called on the Justice Department to renew an abandoned partnership with independent scientists to help raise forensic science standards, warning bluntly that doubts about questioned techniques have grown to the point that “society’s faith in the American justice system is at risk.”
The groups, led by the nation’s largest general scientific body and professional societies representing chemists, statisticians and human behavioral and brain researchers, were responding to the Trump administration’s decision to replace the National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house law enforcement task force and a yet-unnamed adviser.
Led by the 120,000-member American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, the groups said in a June 9 letter that after years of enhanced scrutiny, “we simply do not know whether many forensic practices are reliable or valid scientifically.”
The association linked the problem to what it described as an inherent conflict of interest in having law enforcement overseeing the work of forensic labs on which police and prosecutors rely to win and defend convictions.
“The importance of independence from DOJ in this endeavor cannot be overstated. The DOJ must not be put in the position of using forensic tools in its role as a prosecutor in federal criminal litigation, while simultaneously determining the scientific value of those same tools,” the groups wrote.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said that Justice has begun reviewing the science groups’ statement, which is among more than 250 public comments filed as of June 9 in response to a request for input to help develop a forensic science strategy. That strategy will be devised by an internal department crime task force,, and that the department “will be making announcements in the near future.”
The change of course comes after an Obama White House panel of scientific advisers last September called on courts to question the admissibility of four heavily used techniques, including firearms tracing, saying claims about their reliability had not been scientifically proved. Scientists’ concerns have increased with the rise of new forensic technologies.
Justice officials have said they are reviewing all options for replacing the Obama-era commission, including creating a different federal advisory committee, a Justice Department office or a group composed of representatives of many agencies. Meanwhile, Ehrsam said, two projects related to forensic evidence are on hold. An effort to set uniform standards for forensic testimony and to widen a review of FBI testimony in several techniques is suspended pending review by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. The national commission’s call for new standards for examining and reporting forensic evidence in criminal courts nationwide also is on hold.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April declined to renew the commission, a roughly 30-member policy advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers chartered by the Obama administration in 2013 to make recommendations to the department. In a statement at the time, Sessions focused instead on aiding overburdened police crime labs, proposing to survey crime-lab workloads, backlogs and equipment needs as a way to increase the labs’ capacities, as well as putting more focus on the need for reliability and “specificity” of results.
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has said he wanted to ensure that Obama-era priorities did not counter Trump administration goals of combating violent crime and promoting police safety and morale.
But the administration’s handling of the issue has created divisions among some forensic scientists and groups in the federal government and outside. Many public commenters said they hoped outside scientists would retain a role in Justice Department decision-making and hoped the department would follow through on commitments to scientific objectivity and transparency.
The AAAS called for a federal advisory committee with “broad representation” from policy, practice and research interests and federal science agencies that would begin by identifying acceptable and invalid forensic practices and research priorities.
“Indeed, sidelining scientists has been a key problem,” said the American Statistical Association, which has been involved in trying to determine error rates for forensic techniques.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a leading professional organization representing more than 6,500 practicing forensic scientists, parted ways in its comments with the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, which initially opposed an outside commission.
Crime lab directors said they believed strongly that “forensic scientists and managers should play a primary role in any advancement initiative,” and they emphasized the need for more money and personnel.
The academy agreed with the call for more resources but otherwise struck a different note, saying the justice system “supports advancing forensic science through continued integration of forensic science with the broader scientific community,” adding, “We recognize that science only advances with transparency, openness, and a commitment to the scientific method.”
The commission was led jointly by the Justice Department and a Commerce Department science agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
John Butler, a leading forensic DNA expert and special assistant to the NIST director for forensic science, said the decision on how to proceed is entirely up to the Justice Department, although he noted that “many of the responses request that the commission be renewed,” possibly as a federal advisory committee.
NIST had launched a $14 million-a-year research effort to increase the reliability of techniques that are used more than 100,000 times a year in U.S. crime labs. NIST proposed to study how often claimed matches of pattern-based evidence such as complex DNA profile mixtures may be in error, followed by studies of firearms and bite-mark tracing.
But in its 2018 budget, the administration proposed cutting NIST’s spending on forensic science research by $6.7 million, nearly 50 percent, including eliminating a new research center at Iowa State University and cutting DNA-related and forensic programs at the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice by $19.8 million, or 16 percent.
NIST acknowledged in budget documents that cuts “will make coordination of work . . . less efficient” and will “significantly slow progress.”
The nation’s state and local prosecutors, represented by the National District Attorneys Association, hailed the end of the forensic commission and said in a statement to Justice that they appreciated efforts “to build up the science rather than break it down as has happened in years past.”
NDAA President Michael A. Ramos, district attorney for California’s San Bernardino County, rejected the idea that law enforcement conflicts of interest contributed to gaps in standards and research, saying that as prosecutors, “our job is to prosecute the guilty and exonerate the innocent, while maintaining accuracy and reliability of forensic science in the courtroom. This is a role we take very seriously.”
The commission was created after the National Academy of Sciences criticized a dearth of standards and funding for crime labs, examiners and researchers, problems it traced partly to law enforcement control of the system.
Although examiners had long claimed to be able to match pattern evidence — such as with firearms or bite marks — to a source with “absolute” or “scientific” certainty, only DNA analysis had been validated through statistical research, scientists reported.
The Justice Department last year announced a wider review of testimony by experts across several disciplines after finding that nearly all FBI experts for years had overstated and given scientifically misleading testimony about two techniques the FBI Laboratory long championed: the tracing of crime-scene hairs based on microscopic examinations and of bullets based on chemical composition.
The cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison.