September 01, 2012

ABA, Congress weigh use of forensic science

The ABA House of Delegates approved a new policy in August urging prosecutors to support, among other things, “an effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current forensic science methods.”

Support for strengthening forensic science is part of a larger policy reinforcing the concept of “comprehensive prosecution,” an expanded role for prosecutors who, in addition to carrying out investigation and prosecution of criminal cases, are uniquely positioned to improve the fairness of the criminal justice process through new approaches and strategies.

Prosecutors are increasingly taking a proactive approach to criminal justice by applying forensic methods to identification procedures and interrogation. The inclusion of certain technologies, fingerprint examinations, firearms ballistics identification, microscopic hair analysis, forensic video analysis, computer data forensics and DNA evidence, may help to establish facts and to reach just results in individual cases. Prosecutors are encouraged to demand the newest technology while also insisting on the most reliable.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took a close look at forensic science at a hearing in July entitled “Improving Forensic Science in the Criminal Justice System.” During the hearing, committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) emphasized the importance of maintaining the “scientific integrity of forensic evidence,” which he said is essential to ensuring “the criminal justice system works for all Americans.”

Leahy further discussed the impartial role of forensics, “because forensic science benefits all sides,” he said. He noted doubts about the reliability of forensic evidence and said he believes stronger research, standards, and oversight will “help to ensure that forensic evidence is never misused to convict innocent people.”

Last year, Leahy introduced S. 132 as a starting point for legislation calling for uniform accreditation and certification standards, increased funding for research in forensic sciences, and establishment of an Office of Forensic Science in the Department of Justice. He has solicited feedback on his proposal

Those appearing as witnesses at the hearing included Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted inmates through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system.

Neufeld, an advocate for stronger forensic evidence, said that unvalidated and or improper forensic evidence was the second greatest contributing factor to the 293 erroneous convictions that the Innocence Project has helped to correct.

To sufficiently overcome the fundamental weaknesses of forensic evidence which can lead to wrongful convictions, there must be “nothing short of independent scientific research and standard setting,” Neufeld said.

Scott Burns, executive director for the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), voiced similar concerns about the necessity of “uniform accreditation and certification standards” at the hearing.

 “Prosecutors want and need the best quality evidence and analysis possible to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused,” Burns said, because prosecutors are charged, “first and foremost, with the duty to seek justice.”

Burns and other witnesses testified that federal funding should be used for improving the “quality and reliability of forensics across all forensic science disciplines for the benefit of America’s crime victims and the betterment of America’s communities.”

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