In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks in Bethesda, Md. The Justice Department is reviving work to develop federal standards for what federal forensic experts can say in court and plans to create a program to monitor the accuracy of forensic testimony. (Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Federal authorities will continue to reassess the state of forensic science—but unlike the previous administration, will not dismiss the experience and judgment of experts, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the International Association for Identification annual conference on Monday.

For many in the forensic community who have spent entire careers developing expertise, it was a welcome message. Several of the biggest forensic stakeholder groups said they looked forward to taking a bigger role in the “forensic overhaul” of the sciences that has been underway nearly a decade.

“The IAI strongly supports Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ initiative as presented by (Rosenstein) in his efforts to advance forensic science in the U.S.,” said H.W. Ruslander, the IAI president, after the speech. “In achieving these goals, the stakeholders of the criminal justice system will be better served. We look forward to working in concert with DOJ to achieve these common goals.”

The new DOJ ventures include a new Forensic Science Working Group, the hiring of a well-known prosecutor as the Department of Justice’s senior advisor on forensics and a resumption of working on the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports in federal courts.

The remarks of Rosenstein, a career prosecutor, highlighted the importance of experts like those 1,240 in attendance at the Atlanta conference.

“We must use forensic analysis carefully. But we must continue to use it,” said Rosenstein. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis—or any reliable expert testimony—simply because it is based on human judgment.”

The election of President Donald Trump was seen as a turning point by some in the forensic community. The “forensic overhaul” essentially began in 2009, with the major National Academy of Sciences report titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” That report blasted some established practices, including hair analysis, bitemarks and eyewitness testimony. Another report, by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), similarly criticized the use of some disciplines in forensic science last fall. The two critical documents basically bookended the two terms of President Barack Obama. But since Trump took office in January, the National Commission on Forensic Sciences was disbanded, signaling a new direction by the changeover in administration.

Forensic science incorporating all the established best practices, along with innovation, could meet the challenges of the 21st century, Rosenstein told the IAI, one of the oldest and most respected forensic groups in the world.

“We face many law enforcement challenges—new challenges spawned by the internet and modern technology, old challenges like combating violent gangs, and evolving challenges such as the unprecedented surge in drug overdose deaths from synthetic chemicals,” said Rosenstein. “The president has tasked the DOJ to address those challenges.

“The attorney general strongly believes that forensic analysis can help us find solutions,” he added.

The organizations heard Rosenstein and responded:

  • The IAI and other organizations hailed the appointment of Ted Hunt, one of the members of the former National Commission on Forensic Science and longtime Missouri prosecutor, to serve as the DOJ’s senior forensics advisor.
  • The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors welcomed the direction, while urging the federal authorities to listen to state and local voices, as well. Since investigators’ demand has outstripped the ability of experts to supply timely analysis (e.g., rape kit testing, opioid drug cases and rapid results from the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network), more centralized leadership and advocacy is needed to get all crime labs on the same level of efficiency, they said.
  • “ASCLD believes that (Rosenstein’s) announcement is fully complimentary with ASCLD’s position to further the objective use of science to promote justice and liberty,” the group stated in its position statement. “ASCLD and our membership look forward to advancing forensic science on behalf of the safety and protection of rights of all U.S. citizens.”
  • The American Academy of Forensic Sciences saw the new DOJ announcements as developments to complement the statistical and standards work being done at National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Organization of Science Area Committees, or OSAC.
  • “Collaboration with the broader scientific community and any endeavors that combine the expertise of forensic science practitioners with the knowledge of other scientists provide the best opportunities to strengthen forensic science,” the AAFS board of directors said in a statement. “Any endeavors related to forensic science should not be limited to crime-laboratory based disciplines and should reflect the diversity of the forensic science community.”

The Justice Department last year issued a draft of standards for examining and reporting forensic evidence, following the discovery of flawed forensics testimony in hundreds of FBI-involved cases before 2000.

The draft guidance covered seven forensic science disciplines, including drug and chemical analysis, body fluid testing, latent fingerprints and toxicology.

Rosenstein told the IAI meeting that balance in forensic science will get both prosecution and defense to the right conclusion.

“The truth is out there,” said Rosenstein. “Working together, we will help judges and juries find it.”