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Policy

Reforming Forensics: Experts Sound Off On Where To Focus Efforts

by Carmen Drahl
September 10, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 37

COVER STORY

Reforming Forensics: Experts Sound Off On Where To Focus Efforts

Much of the purpose for last month’s Innocence Project symposium at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia was to encourage chemists to get involved in setting new standards for forensic science. The field is facing multiple calls for reform.

In July, the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a review of thousands of criminal cases to determine whether wrongful convictions happened because of nonvalidated forensic evidence. A review reported this June, of 715 randomly selected sexual assault and homicide convictions in Virginia, found that in 5% of the convictions DNA testing eliminated the convicted offender as the source of incriminating physical evidence.

Furthermore, two bills aiming to reform the forensic science system are making their way through Congress, sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jay Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). The bills are attempting to codify some of the reforms proposed in a scathing 2009 National Research Council report that found the system to be disjointed and showed that little scientific basis exists for most of forensics (C&EN, June 25, page 32).

Experts who spoke with C&EN had mixed opinions about the NRC report. Several had specific suggestions about where to focus reform efforts.

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.

Forensic scientists want to more precisely standardize the wording in written reports, adds John M. Collins, emeritus director of the Forensic Science Division for the Michigan State Police. The term “match,” for instance, can mean different things depending on context, he says.

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 who retired from the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Sciences in 2007. In 2009, 83% of publicly funded crime labs were accredited, according to the Justice Department. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, the main organization that accredits forensic labs, recently adopted an international accreditation standard called ISO 17025.

“Accreditation is a matter of two things—resources and administration,” Brettell says. In addition to obtaining the necessary funding, lab overseers must understand the value of accreditation and make it a priority, he says.

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