A deputy attorney general recently announced the creation of an internal forensic science working group within the Justice Department. It’s main goals will be to develop uniform standards for how forensic evidence may be described in testimony and to set up a monitoring program to ensure federal analysts comply with those standards.
The group’s creation is partly in response to a 2015 DOJ review of hundreds of trial transcripts from before 2000. In that review, the agency found that FBI experts had overstated the reliability of microscopic hair analysis evidence in at least 90 percent of the cases.
Other types of commonly used forensic evidence have been called into question, either as lacking in scientific validity or as subject to exaggeration. Examples include handwriting analysis, bite-mark comparisons and some ballistics tests, among others.
The FBI claims it has improved its testing and testimony practices since the late 90s, but it nevertheless began working on draft recommendations in several major forensic disciplines. The draft recommendations, which were meant to apply to the FBI, ATF and DEA, were suspended by the Justice Department pending the creation of this working group. Also suspended was a wider review of whether other forensic techniques were tainted by exaggerated testimony.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions suspended another forensic science group, as well. The National Commission on Forensic Science was an independent commission of scientists and experts working to improve the overall scientific validity of the forensic techniques the government relies on in court. While the new working group is advertised as replacing the National Commission, the working group is internal to the Justice Department and won’t have the same array of differing opinions.
“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,” says a former member of the National Commission. “It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it’s about achieving justice.”
The deputy attorney general has a different view. “We must use forensic analysis carefully, but we must continue to use it,” he said. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis — or any reliable expert testimony — simply because it is based on human judgment.”