Many headlines were made when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions disbanded the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) earlier this week. Some predicted “less science” in forensic investigations nationwide.
But the “forensic overhaul”—the reconsideration of much of the science in the criminal justice system in America—is still underway. The Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science, known as OSAC, continues to travel the course set by the NCFS since 2013.
So while the NCFS that had set the agenda for the “forensic overhaul” during the Obama administration may now be gone, OSAC continues the work to assess the science in the American criminal justice system.
“OSAC is the group of practitioners with expertise and other stakeholders … who focus on the practices of forensic science,” said Mark Stolorow, director for OSAC Affairs, who spoke to Forensic Magazine last week - before the NCFS had been officially disbanded. “OSAC are the boots on the ground.”
OSAC, split into dozens of subcommittees of forensic experts, continues to meet and evaluate the state of forensic science. The latest set of written standards, for sampling of seized drugs, was proposed last week. Next week all 560 OSAC members from its 34 committees and subcommittees, plus an additional 100 subject matter experts, will converge at in-person meetings in Leesburg, Virginia.
OSAC also has 155 standards in the pipeline, and they keep coming, according to officials.
OSAC has continued its work, Stolorow told Forensic Magazine last week. Though the NCFS decision had yet to be made at that point, the organization's mission proceeds, he said at that time.
“On a day-to-day operations basis, we are moving forward at virtually the same pace without any particular change,” said Stolorow, who is also the deputy director of the Special Programs Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “Seventy-five percent of our organization is made up of non-federal employees.”
NCFS and OSAC emerged from the hailstorm of criticism that began with the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report entitled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” That report blasted some established practices, including hair analysis, bitemarks and eyewitness testimony. A similar report, by the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST), reiterated some of those grievances last fall.
OSAC has taken those criticisms, and actually attempted to implement them to the real world of criminal investigation.
To get “buy-in” from the forensic community, the group has brought in the experts who work in crime scenes and forensic laboratories from across the country, including members of groups such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the International Association for Identification. In fact, more than half of the OSAC members are forensic practitioners, from dozens of disciplines, including firearms, fingerprints, DNA analysis, crime scene investigation, chemistry and other roles. All are volunteers, and only their travel is reimbursed, according to officials.
NIST and its statistical science focus are present on the dozens of OSAC groups. But the majority of members are practicing local and state forensic scientists. (Thirty-five members of the 560 are from NIST, while about 20 percent are academics.)
The new drugs sampling standard is an example of how exacting, and exhaustive, the OSAC work is. The latest document had its origins 20 years ago, in the beginnings of the Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs (SWGDRUG), said Sandra E. Rodriguez-Cruz, a senior forensic chemist at the DEA’s Southwest Laboratory in California.
Rodriguez-Cruz, who chairs the OSAC Seized Drugs Subcommittee, told Forensic Magazine that the document itself first appeared through ASTM International in 2007—and was a collaboration between the Department of Justice and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The SWGDRUG guidance on sampling is very similar to what OSAC has approved. But it is OSAC’s proposal of the standards which will keep laboratories and experts on the same page on how to sample large stashes of seized drugs (e.g., how to sample a cache of thousands of suspect pills and how to testify about it in court).
“Now the accrediting bodies can look at the documents in the OSAC registry,” she said. “We had no teeth before. We hope this document makes that a little more clear.”
The seized drug sampling standard is one of five existing documents that OSAC has vetted and proposed. (The drugs group previously approved a substance testing guideline in January 2016.) But the organization has rejected some 25 in the same time, deeming them sufficiently non-scientific to demand more rigor. A master catalogue of more than 700 standards is on file at OSAC, and the subcommittees are working their way through the whole list. Original proposals are still pending.
“The bar that OSAC sets is very high. Only one out of every six make it through,” Stolorow said.
Rodriguez-Cruz said the OSAC collaboration between scientists, lawyers, academics and other stakeholders has forced everyone to improve in their respective field.
“The biggest change is communication,” said the scientist. “We are learning each other’s languages. We have all had to get out of our comfort zone, and to learn about our discipline form an outside point of view.”
The NCFS, by the end of its last meeting on Tuesday, produced 45 documents and recommendations in three years of work—many of which directed OSAC’s explorations into forensic disciplines. But the commission itself had voted against its own renewal at its January meeting, by a 16-15 vote. Sessions announced that it would not be renewed on Monday.
“We applaud the professionalism of the National Commission on Forensic Science and look forward to building on the contribution it has made in this crucial field,” said Sessions, in a statement. “As we decide how to move forward, we bear in mind that the Department is just one piece of the larger criminal justice system and that the vast majority of forensic science is practiced by state and local forensic laboratories and is used by state and local prosecutors.”
But OSAC and its ongoing meetings have not been explicitly addressed by the Trump administration. The full annual OSAC meeting will run from April 18 to April 21.
“OSAC will carry on,” said Stolorow.