New Report Explores Controversy Over Forensic Evidence Reliability

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If you’ve been following the national controversy over alleged deficiencies in various forensic science disciplines, you’ll be interested in a new report on that subject that appears in the current issue of the University of Illinois Law Review.

In a 38-page article, Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University with a master’s degree in forensic science, offers background documentation on why the prestigious National Academy of Sciences 2 years ago issued a scathing report that raised troubling questions about the scientific basis of crime evidence derived from “fingerprints, handwriting, ballistics, and other common forensic techniques.”

The Academy concluded in 2009, after 2 years of study, that “some forensic science disciplines are supported by little rigorous systematic research to validate [their] basic premises and techniques.” Indeed, the Academy declared, “only nuclear DNA analysis has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between an evidentiary sample and a specific individual or source.”

Based on NAS recommendations, a proposal is currently before Congress to establish an independent National Institute of Forensic Science that would control funding and research in the field. Because it would diminish law enforcement’s control over forensic sciences, this proposal has been vigorously opposed by some policing professionals.

Although the NAS report asserted that the DOJ, through the FBI Crime Laboratory and the National Institute of Justice, has failed in its obligation to improve forensic science, the Academy did not provide specific details of this failure. Giannelli’s article supplies behind-the-scenes descriptions, documenting, in his view, how government agencies “manipulated science at the expense of both science and justice.”

“Scientists with impeccable credentials should conduct the needed research” to determine the validity of various forensic sciences, Giannelli argues. “Moreover, they should be independent of law enforcement.”

Under the status quo, he claims, “the government has…thwarted efforts” at scientific evaluation by “shaping the research agenda, limiting access to data, attacking experts who disagree with its positions, and ‘spinning’ negative reports.” He supports the NAS’s recommendation for a new federal forensic-oversight agency, which he believes “would be the most important development in forensic science since the establishment of the crime laboratory in the mid-1920s.”

The original NAS report, the 352-page Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, can be accessed at: clicking here.

[Our thanks to Chris Lawrence, a faculty member of the certification course in Force Science Analysis and instructor at the Ontario (Canada) Police College, for bringing Giannelli’s report to our attention.]

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