Justice Dept. moves to shore up testimony about forensic evidence

The Department of Justice announced recently that it has created an internal "forensic science working group" that will attempt to address some of the longstanding issues around forensic evidence techniques and how they are presented in court. Its main goals will be to create a uniform set of standards about what analysts can say in courtroom testimony about forensic science techniques, and to set up a monitoring program to ensure they comply.

The working group replaces an independent panel, the National Commission on Forensic Science, created during the Obama administration, according to the Associated Press. However, civil libertarians and criminal defense attorneys are concerned that an internal group will not have the full range of voices necessary to ensure a neutral, just outcome. 

"What is most unfortunate is that they want to make the entire effort to improve forensic science an in-house working group, as opposed to an independent, transparent and science-driven, proactive entity," said a former member of the National Commission and the co-founder of the Innocence Project. "It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it's about achieving justice."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions disbanded the National Commission on Forensic Science in April, just before its final report was due. It is unclear if the DOJ's internal working group will address any of the underlying issues surrounding the reliability of common forensic techniques.

Forensic science initiatives prompted by shocking 2015 evidence review

In 2015, a Justice Department review of hundreds of trial transcripts from the past ten years revealed a shocking fact. In at least 90 percent of the cases, FBI analysts had exaggerated the value of microscopic hair analysis -- to the benefit of the prosecution.

Other forensic techniques -- including hair comparison, handwriting analysis, bite-mark comparison and some ballistics evidence -- have been called into question as either scientifically questionable or subject to exaggerated testimony.

Despite the FBI's own claim that it has improved its practices since the 1990s, the agency began issuing draft standards for testimony surrounding forensic evidence last year. The draft standards covered techniques including toxicology, drug and chemical analysis, latent fingerprint evidence and body fluid testing. The standards were ultimately meant to apply to testimony by analysts from the FBI, DEA and ATF. Unfortunately, the Justice Department halted the rollout of those standards in order to give the new forensic science working group a say over them.

Although no one has suggested that human misjudgment explains the FBI hair analysts' exaggerations about the value of their evidence, the head of the new working group said, "We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis - or any reliable expert testimony - simply because it is based on human judgment."

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