In 2015, the Department of Justice initiated an effort to review federal standards for forensic evidence and testimony. The move was in response to FBI revelations that its microscopic hair analysis unit had overstated the scientific certainty of their evidence in over 90 percent of cases the agency reviewed. The FBI’s revelations and others have led to serious concerns about the reliability of several common forensic techniques and how analysts are trained to testify about them.
The scientific validity of hair analysis, bite-mark comparison, handwriting analysis, ballistics testing and other common types of forensic evidence have been called into question. A wider review to determine whether other forensic techniques were similarly affected by exaggerated testimony was undertaken during the Obama administration, but it was suspended by the current administration.
In April, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowed the charter for the National Commission on Forensic Science to expire before its work was complete. The commission was a group of independent scientists brought together in an effort to improve the reliability of forensic evidence and to ensure it was correctly represented in the criminal justice system.
The new initiative will replace the National Commission on Forensic Science. Its top priority, according to the Associated Press, is to set uniform standards on how analysts should describe the scientific validity of forensic tests during courtroom testimony. The group will also create a monitoring program to ensure accuracy in forensic testimony. In addition, it will be probing the nation’s overburdened crime labs. Among other goals, it will also review some 250 comments and suggestions received by the commission before it was disbanded.
“We must use forensic analysis carefully, but we must continue to use it,” said the deputy attorney general who formed the new working group. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis – or any reliable expert testimony – simply because it is based on human judgment.”
A former commission member and the founder of the Innocence Project said setting guidelines for valid forensic testimony is laudable, but he criticized the plan to have the Justice Department to evaluate its own work.
“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 said. “It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it’s about achieving justice.”