- "The law's greatest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic evidence, however, concerns the question of whether—and to what extent — there is science in any given forensic science discipline."
Boiled down to these statements, the report seems to paint a depressing picture of forensics. The panel took in scores of documents and presentations from industry experts and determined that the existing system is flawed. Surprisingly, to a certain degree, forensic experts agree.
"[It] may have been the intent of the committee to jar the community into action," Houck says. "But I think that sort of broad-brush statement, at this juncture, does more damage than it does good. For example, one of my areas is fiber analysis. You have the entirety of the textile science industry behind the analyses that you conduct. So there are standard definitions for nylon, for polyester, for the optical measurements that you make, the dyes, the chemistry, all of this is out there and well characterized, so to say there's no science behind this is a misperception of what that technique is. The broad statement of 'DNA is the only science,' that's troublesome to me."
Forensics authorities say that the people steeped in forensics already know about the problems addressed in the report, and the report just made an official statement of them. Essentially, that none of this was ground-breaking, earth-shattering news for anyone in touch with the industry.
The panel makes several suggestions that would redress and refurbish the current state of forensics. The committee's 13 recommendations, outlined in the report, call for changes such as the creation of a new autonomous entity, which would exclude existing entities; improving and developing graduate programs to attract students to forensic science, strengthening and making lab accreditation mandatory, as well as expert certification; and establish a national forensic code of ethics.
Science serving the law
If the report fulfills its goal, to overhaul forensic science, there would be changes to the way forensics are done. The most controversial element involves the proposal that the industry take the crime labs out from law enforcement's hands.
The 13 recommendations the report makes are all based off of its first recommendation: For Congress to establish an independent federal entity, which it tentatively names the National Institute of Forensic Science, to support and oversee forensic science standardization. According to the report, "existing federal entities are too wedded to the current 'fragmented' forensic science community, which is deficient in too many respects." Under the new program, forensic analysis and processes would be removed from working under law enforcement agencies and would instead work independently.
"Science should serve the law," says Harry Edwards, co-chair of the committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community, the body authoring the report. In a news conference on the report's release, Edwards explains that establishing autonomous labs would remove human biases and inject more scientific methodologies in forensics.
"Law enforcement shouldn't drive the science," he says. "The scientific enterprise is missing in many of the disciplines here and they need independence to be able to do the work that the committee thinks needs to be done."
Though the public denouncement of contemporary forensic practices could be seen as negative, those in the industry don't believe it will have a bad effect.
Houck has written extensively about forensic science and given presentations on education, business practices and philosophy of forensic science, hairs, fibers and forensic anthropology. In 2007, during the 18 months the committee researched and met with experts from various forensic disciplines, Houck provided information on forensics training and education as well as hair evidence.
"I think the report … makes some badly needed statements about the industry," Houck says.