From The New York Times
Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.
The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.
The result of a two-year review, the report follows a series of widely publicized crime laboratory failures, including the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., and Muslim convert who was wrongly arrested in the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000.
American examiners matched Mr. Mayfield’s fingerprint to those found at the scene, although Spanish authorities eventually convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty. Mr. Mayfield was released, and the federal government settled with him for $2 million.
In 2005, Congress asked the National Academy to assess the state of the forensic techniques used in court proceedings. The report’s findings are not binding, but they are expected to be highly influential.
Legal experts expect that the report will give ammunition to defense lawyers seeking to discredit forensic procedures and expert witnesses in court. Lawyers could also use the findings in their attempts to overturn convictions based on spurious evidence. Judges are likely to use the findings to raise the bar for admissibility of certain types of forensic evidence and to rein in exaggerated expert testimony.
The report may also drive federal legislation if Congress adopts its recommendations.
Forensics, which developed within law enforcement institutions — and have been mythologized on television shows from “Quincy, M.E.” to “CSI: Miami” — suffers from a lack of independence, the report found.
The report’s most controversial recommendation is the establishment of a federal agency to finance research and training and promote universal standards in forensic science, a discipline that spans anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and law. The report also calls for tougher regulation of crime laboratories
In an effort to mitigate law enforcement opposition to the report, which has already delayed its publication, the draft focuses on scientific shortcomings and policy changes that could improve forensics. It is largely silent on strictly legal issues to avoid overstepping its bounds.
Although it is not subject to significant criticism in the report, the advent of DNA
profiling clearly set the agenda. DNA evidence is presented in less than 10 percent of all violent crimes but has revolutionized the entire science of forensics.
Peter J. Neufeld, a co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, presented to the academy a study of trial transcripts of 137 convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence and found that 60 percent included false or misleading statements regarding blood, hair, bite mark, shoe print, soil, fiber and fingerprint analyses.
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the report would be a force of change in the forensics field.
One person who has reviewed the draft and who asked not to be identified because of promises to keep the contents confidential said: “I’m sure that every defense attorney in the country is waiting for this report to come out. There are going to be challenges to fingerprints and firearms evidence and the general lack of empirical grounding. It’s going to be big.”