Opinion writer

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency)

Over at Scientific American, six scientists who have worked on various forensics reform efforts have written an essay on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent policy changes at the Justice Department. After noting the federal government has finally gotten the ball rolling toward addressing how science is presented and used in the courtroom, they write . . .

This progress is now in danger of being undone. On April 10, the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Sessions, refused to extend the term of the NCFS. The demise of the NCFS is a tremendous missed opportunity for the progress of forensic science and criminal justice. The NCFS brought together diverse stakeholders including forensic scientists, judges, lawyers, victims’ advocates, law enforcement, and practicing independent scientists. NCFS was the only formal link between mainstream science and the communities that support and consume the products of forensic science, most notably the criminal justice system. During the four years in which it operated, the NCFS made considerable progress in bridging the scientific and legal disciplines . . .

Even more importantly, the NCFS recommended that all forensic techniques should be independently validated before being used in criminal investigations. Some have been; but too many others have not. Bite mark evidence is one example; despite lacking any scientific foundation, it is incredibly is still being admitted into the courts. Last year the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology identified latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis as also lacking scientific validity.

Medical therapies, airplanes and electrical devices are tested by independent entities before they can be used routinely; the public demands it and takes for granted that this has occurred . . .

The Justice Department now proposes to improve forensic science by moving its oversight and development to an office within the department. This is precisely the opposite of what was recommended by the National Academy of Sciences report and the NCFS. It is a step backwards, because it reinforces the conditions that contributed to the current problems, namely, placing this discipline within the control of law enforcement and prosecutors. The Justice Department is home to many dedicated public servants including scientists whose passion for justice is unquestioned. However, DOJ is not a scientific body, and it is difficult to see how forensic science can become a true science in that environment. Science flourishes when free and independent; only then can the tools and technology that it creates be truly reliable.

The notion that the Justice Department handles all of this internally (which, incidentally, was also the position of Sessions’s predecessor Loretta Lynch) is particularly problematic when you consider the fact that the FBI crime lab has been the source of some of the more wide-reaching forensic scandals of the past few decades, including advancing at least two fields (a method of hair fiber analysis and bullet composition analysis) that tainted thousands of cases and have no scientific support at all.