Being called infirm, disparate, fragmented, inconsistent and faulty is not exactly a raving review.
But that's what a special committee under the National Academy of Sciences, assigned to review the forensic disciplines and report to U.S. Congress, came back with earlier this year.
It's not as bad as it sounds, though, say forensic experts who testified before the committee in their respective subjects. Much of the report's findings, including calling attention to "fragmentation and inconsistent practices" within forensic science, are not news to those steeped in the industry. Instead, it collectively makes official the reality that within forensics, authorities agree an overhaul is due.
Industry report card
In 2007, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to create a committee to review forensic practices nationally. The committee's goal was to assess resource needs of the forensic community and make recommendations on how to further and improve the science and practices behind forensics.
The result of the committee's investigation, its "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward" report, are outlined in the 200-plus page document, serving as a report card on the scientific disciplines with all but DNA analysis coming up short.
The report states, "with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source."
On first read, that statement could seem rather damning for those working in the nation's nearly 400 forensic crime laboratories. However, industry experts claim the report highlights those disparities that professionals working in forensics know exist.
Max Houck, director of both the forensic lab and forensic science initiatives at West Virginia University, and who also presented on subject matter expertise for the committee in 2007, says the document is a consensus of forensic professional reflection.
"It says nothing that hasn't been said in one way or another over the last 20 years," Houck says. "It's just that it came from a much more authoritative source this time.
Carol Henderson, director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law and a professor of law at Stetson University, regularly speaks at conventions and conferences. Henderson says she agrees with the "Strengthening Forensic Science" report findings.
"Many of the recommendations are already in place, such as accreditation and board certification," Henderson says. "We need to educate people that these efforts are already ongoing. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel here, it's the same thing that's already happening."
What the report can do, Henderson says, is give law enforcement or forensic professionals a reference when asking for more training and funding. It can also serve as the springboard for more research, which Henderson and Houck agree is always welcome.
"This can be seen as an opportunity rather than a detriment," Henderson says.
In addition to identifying DNA as the sole sound forensic practice, the report highlights several other areas it considers as "serious problems."
Among other things, the report says:
- … the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity."
- "These shortcomings obviously pose a continuing and serious threat to the quality of credibility of forensic science practice."
- "The fragmented nature of the forensic science community raises the worrisome prospect that the quality of evidence presented in court … can vary unpredictably according to jurisdiction."