Flawed forensics?

          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.

Other findings

     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."

     And finally:

  • "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.

     Another of the findings referenced poorly trained experts in forensic labs. Houck, who is an instructor and directs educational and professional resources in forensic science, says this finding is valid, adding that there are certain disciplines that have only recently begun to require a bachelor's degree, for example. "There are so few outlets for training that it doesn't surprise me that the committee felt that forensic scientists were overall poorly trained," Houck says. He explains that training is a two-way street: The first part of which there aren't a lot of venues for some training, and two, the laboratories themselves or law enforcement agencies do not have or are able to provide funds for training.

     "I wouldn't say it's exactly the fault of the scientists or the profession itself, it's lack of venues and lack of funding," Houck continues.

     "Considering that people are the greatest expense in a laboratory, you'd want to invest in those people. [Currently] we don't train people like it matters."

Limiting errors in justice, science

     Boiled down, the National Academy of Sciences report on the state of forensics may look brutal, but experts immersed in the industry find it accurate and ultimately, necessary that these things be said.

     Leaders in the forensics arena like Houck and Henderson remain enthusiastic about the science as a whole, and look forward to building a "better 'forensic science,' " as Henderson puts it.

     "This is a very exciting time to be in forensic science, I have to say that much," Henderson says.

     The study's findings, it is hoped, will help experts put their best foot forward.

     The lexis of a German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, from more than a half-century ago sums up the report's resounding message: "The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error."

     Editor's note: The complete report is available from the National Academies Press, www.nap.edu, and the documents the panel reviewed in researching the report are available through the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at www.ncstl.org.