Setting Forensic Science on a New Path

Judicature, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Setting Forensic Science on a New Path


The recently issued National Academy of Sciences report offers a unique opportunity to revamp the forensic science delivery system.

The integrity of the criminal justice system is inextricably dependent on forensic science. Our courts are entitled to expect that work of the highest quality and timeliness will be forthcoming from those who provide services in this field. But public crime labs and medical examiner and coroner offices need help. Congress has a unique opportunity to revamp the forensic science delivery system in the United States by adopting the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) report issued on February 18, 2009, entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

Over the years we have had ample examples of failed justice when science does not live up to its promise, whether through ineffectual use of science, over-stated opinions, or, in a few cases, malfeasance. Convicting innocent people and allowing guilty ones to go free is unacceptable to everyone. It is simply bad policy and erodes public confidence in law enforcement, the courts, and the criminal justice system.

The National Academy's report offers a far-reaching set of recommendations to right the system and set forensic science on a new path. Yet, until Congress acts to endorse and adopt the recommendations, little will happen.

The NAS report notes that forensic science is a critical element of the criminal justice system and identifies aspects that are flawed and in need of improvement. It notes, for example, that forensic science is fragmented and underfunded. While the field of forensic science has its detractors and its supporters, all will agree that quality forensic science, delivered in a timely fashion, is essential to the criminal justice system. Many of the important recommendations will take years to set in place. But the NAS report's first recommendation - to create a National Institute of Forensic Science - is key to establishing a strategic pathway.

Forensic science covers a wide range of disciplines: chemistry, biology, medicine, and material science, plus a wide array of subjects not generally found in traditional academic departments. Thus, many feel that fingerprint identification, hand writing analysis, firearms, tool mark, tire impressions, footwear evidence, arson investigation, bite marks, etc., need further validation. All of these areas of investigation present difficult and important issues for courts, who serve as the "gatekeepers," determining what evidence juries may consider and what does not meet a threshold of reliability. The report concludes that "the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem." The American Judicature Society - committed as it is to improving our systems of justice - cannot but be deeply concerned about the need for reform in this area and is uniquely positioned to offer judicial education on the issues.

A number of the recommendations raise serious challenges. For instance, the report notes that some routinely employed forensic tests need further validation. The implications of this observation are obvious. Does this suggest that fingerprint or firearms evidence, to pick two examples, may not be admissible until further evaluation is completed?

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