Jeff Sessions Wants to Take the Science Out of Forensic Science
Thanks to “CSI,” many of us are familiar with forensics and its application to criminal justice — but it may come as a surprise to learn that some of the science we think is infallible is actually pretty questionable.
That’s something scientists want to change, as good forensic evidence can make or break a case, exonerate someone who was wrongfully convicted or change the way we think about a social issue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, apparently, doesn’t agree — because he just announced that he doesn’t intend to renew the National Commission on Forensic Science.
Founded in 2013, the commission includes a panel of 30 experts working alongside the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. They have one goal: to explore the forensics techniques we use — and those in development — with an eye to making them more scientific, and thereby more reliable.
Sessions claims this can be handled in-house, but not everyone agrees.
When you hear “forensic science,” you probably think of scientists in labs, but the truth is more complicated. Many techniques were developed within the law enforcement community, sometimes with help from researchers interested in criminal justice. Some strategies that we consider to be highly reliable — often because we’ve seen them on TV — actually aren’t. And many don’t meet the tests for scientific validity. Even fingerprints, which feel like the gold standard of forensics, might not actually be terribly useful.
When someone’s freedom — or life — hangs in the balance, that’s a pretty big deal.
Over the course of its tenure, the commission produced 43 documents with guidance and recommendations, including one that may surprise you: a suggestion that forensic practitioners be subject to universal accreditation, because they weren’t before. Many of the recommendations surround the desire for the collection, handling and processing of forensic evidence to be consistent and repeatable, a key requirement in the sciences.
If you can’t repeat a result, or you get different results depending on who handles the evidence and where it’s processed, that’s a bad sign. The commission operated on a slightly different rubric than law enforcement is accustomed to, choosing to question and interrogate every method with the goal of making it stronger.
The results of their work are already making a difference in American criminal justice, including in the courtroom. Defense attorneys are learning more about the kinds of questions to ask to challenge methods with dubious validity. And that indirectly pressures the criminal justice community to reform its practices in order to stay ahead. In a world of “innocent until proven guilty,” that’s good news, but it’s beneficial for law and order types, too.
Law enforcement officers want to know that they have the right person, and that means being able to collect accurate evidence to bring against the accused in court. Ethical officers and investigators should be excited about developments to refine and codify the forensic sciences, and many are — but not Sessions. His comments suggest that he’s not interested in creating clear federal standards and guidance.
At the same time that he put the kibosh on the commission, Sessions also indicated that the Department of Justice likely wouldn’t take up a planned exploration of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s evidentiary techniques. Department of Justice staff would have evaluated how the agency investigates crimes, examining allegations of misconduct and areas for improvement to strengthen the FBI’s ability to work effectively and accurately.
Several members of the commission wrote a letter asking Sessions to reconsider, with one telling “Science” that the commission had tremendous value as a source of outside experts who could inform the criminal justice system. The lone federal judge who sits on the commission also expressed concerns about the decision.
Photo credit: WorldSkills UK