The evidence continues to mount that commonly accepted forensic science techniques are much less reliable than juries and the public had long been led to believe. In 2015, the FBI revealed that its own analysts had overstated the scientific certainty of microscopic hair analysis tests in at least 90 percent of cases reviewed.
Ballistics, bite-mark comparison, handwriting analysis and several other common techniques have also been challenged as scientifically flawed, according to the Associated Press.
This week, the Department of Justice announced that it will revive some of the work being done under the Obama administration to determine how best to move forward. Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowed an independent commission — the National Commission on Forensic Science — to expire in April. A new forensic science working group being set up by a deputy attorney general will take over some of its work.
“We must use forensic analysis carefully, but we must continue to use it,” said the deputy AG. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis — or any reliable expert testimony — simply because it is based on human judgment.”
The top priorities of the working group will be to set uniform standards for how forensic analysts should testify in court about the scientific certainty of their techniques, and to create a monitoring program to ensure that happens. The group will also look into the needs of overburdened crime labs nationwide, among other goals.
Should the DOJ rely on an internal group to review its own evidence?
Criminal defense lawyers and criminal justice reformers were concerned when AG Sessions disbanded the National Commission on Forensic Science, as it had been a panel of independent experts from a variety of backgrounds.
The co-founder of the Innocence Project and a former member of the commission worries that replacing an independent commission with an internal working group is misguided. The Justice Department group will presumably be made up of federal prosecutors who rely on the forensic techniques being reviewed.
“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,” he told the AP. “It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it’s about achieving justice.”
The emotions of a criminal trial can make it very tempting for prosecutors to do whatever it takes to win. However, they have an ethical obligation to present all evidence fairly and not to present any evidence that would be misleading to a jury. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to get at the truth of the matter — not to get a win at any cost.