Jeff Sessions wants to make it easier to slant evidence for convictions by axing the group that’s working to improve accuracy:
Julia Leighton, a commission member and retired public defender, conveyed the disappointed mood of the room when she spoke a few minutes later. “We have to understand the importance of this juncture that we’re at, where we’re really grappling with, frankly, are we telling the truth as a matter of science to judges and jurors?” she said. “And that can’t be put on hold. It is inconsistent with the Department of Justice’s mission to put that on hold.”
For years, scientists and defense attorneys have fought an uphill battle to bring scientific rigor into a field that, despite its name, is largely devoid of science. Analyses regularly presented in courtrooms—using such evidence as bite marks, hair, and bullets—that for decades have been employed by prosecutors to convict and even execute defendants are actually incapable of definitively linking an individual to a crime. Other methods, including fingerprint analysis, are less rigorous and more subjective than experts—and popular culture—let on.
“Clinical laboratories must meet higher standards to be allowed to diagnose strep throat than forensic labs must meet to put a defendant on death row.”
But on the witness stand, experts routinely overstate the certainty of their forensic methods. In 2015, the FBI completed a review of 268 trial transcripts in which the bureau’s experts used microscopic hair analysis to incriminate a defendant. The results showed that bureau experts submitted scientifically invalid testimony at least 95 percent of the time. Among those cases with faulty evidence, 33 defendants received the death penalty and 9 had been executed. No court has banned bite-mark evidence despite a consensus among scientists that the discipline is entirely subjective. One study found that forensic dentists couldn’t even agree if markings were caused by human teeth. Until this month, the National Commission on Forensic Science was the most important group moving forensics into the modern scientific era.
A few minutes after the commission learned of its fate, the Justice Department publicly announced its next steps. A new Justice Department Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, established by executive order in February to “support law enforcement” and “restore public safety,” would now oversee forensic science. Sessions, the press release said, would appoint a senior forensic adviser and the department would conduct a “needs assessment of forensic science laboratories that examines workload, backlog, personnel and equipment needs of public crime laboratories.” Rather than an independent body that uses science to evaluate forensics, the new administration seemed to be basing its forensic policies largely on increasing conviction rates for law enforcement.