In a recent symposium and follow-up feature article in its weekly newsmagazine, the American Chemical Society (ACS) highlighted the role of the Innocence Project in “challenging improper use of DNA testing and other elements of forensic science” helping to free nearly 300 wrongfully convicted prisoners (http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i37/Forensic-Science-Innocence-Project.html).
The symposium sought to bring together two groups who have often found themselves at odds: forensic scientists and the Innocence Project. Of course, this tension may not be unmerited, when “Research conducted by the Innocence Project suggests that [while] the number one contributor to wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification, number two—involved 45% of the time—is faulty forensics, which the Innocence Project defines as testimony that isn’t scientifically vetted, exaggerated testimony, and forensic misconduct.”
“I think the Innocence Project underestimates bad lawyering as a cause of wrongful convictions,” chemist Jay A. Siegel, a longtime forensic scientist and adjunct professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis told the ACS. “Prosecutors may withhold evidence that could exonerate a defendant, and defense teams may not be trained to mount an argument against inappropriate testimony,” he explained.
The point, however, may not be the source of the animosity, but rather the progress we may accomplish if symposia like the one the ACS sponsored open a constructive debate between these two factions.
News of the troubled St. Paul Crime Lab and the closing of the Massachusetts Crime Lab—not to mention court cases in which bite mark, fire, and hair analysis techniques have been questioned—bring back the discussions that began with the publication of the NRC report questioning the state of forensic science (Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward). When we ourselves are questioning the validity of some of our techniques and searching for answers to the controversies that are plaguing crime labs around the country, can we blame an outside organization for doing the same? Wouldn’t we accomplish more by opening discourse into the best ways to overcome these obstacles and strengthen our criminal justice system? After all, it is forensic science and its advancements in DNA analysis that have allowed the Innocence Project to so successfully overturn most of those wrongful convictions. And ultimately, don’t we all want the same thing: criminals behind bars and innocents free to live their lives?
So what are our steps forward? How can we achieve this shared goal?
One of the purposes of the Innocence Project symposium at the American Chemical Society national meeting was to “encourage chemists to get involved in setting new standards for forensic science.”
Experts who spoke with the ACS had mixed opinions about the NRC report. “Education is essential, says Carrie Leonetti of the University of Oregon School of Law. ‘Most prosecutors and defense attorneys are just not trained to deal with forensic science issues.’ After the report was released, she says, there was a flurry of training for public defenders, but it wasn’t sustained.”
“Currently, forensic lab accreditation is not mandatory, but it should be, as recommended by NRC, says Thomas A. Brettell, a forensic chemist at Cedar Crest College. ‘Accreditation is a matter of two things—resources and administration.’ In addition to obtaining the necessary funding, lab overseers must understand the value of accreditation and make it a priority, he says.”
While funding continues to be a problem—making continued education, accreditation, and research to validate forensic techniques more difficult to fit into the budget—there are also increased opportunities to achieve these goals. More universities are starting forensic programs, which are not only producing educated forensic scientists but providing venues for continued research into analysis techniques and forensic technologies. International cooperation is bringing forensic science to countries where evidence and science rarely played a part in court procedures. And companies continue to refine and advance their technologies, even in the face of the current economic climate. We in turn can take advantage of the many resources we have available to us to share ideas, question our techniques, and strengthen forensic science. Conferences, Web forums, and even publications like this one provide a venue for this crucial discourse.
In the August/September issue, the article “The New Face of Forensic Science” was written by Susan Halla and Keith Whittle.
In “Easy Reporting of Hard DNA: Computer Comfort in the Courtroom” Figure 4 was erroneously run twice. You can view the corrected Figure 5 at www.forensicmag.com/article/easy-reporting-hard-dna-computer-comfort-cou....