Forensic Reform, A Critical Criminal Justice Issue
Forensic Reform: On the Agenda in the New Congress « Failed Evidence
I’ve written a number of times (here and here an here, for example) about the problems with forensic science laboratories in this country. Just in the last few months, we’ve seen scandals hit labs in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Mississippi. It seems that the parade might never end.
But today, news emerged that indicates that, just maybe, forensic reform might be on the national agenda.
The new Congress will, of course, be preoccupied with budget and fiscal matters, and also with the President’s efforts on gun control and an expected push for immigration reform. But Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has announced that he intends to put forensic reform onto the long list of issues he will examine. According to The BLT (the Blog of the Legal Times, which covers law and government in Washington), Leahy’s committee will be working on an ambitious agenda: immigration, national security and civil liberties issues (including the use of drones in both foreign and domestic contexts), and gun control policy, but that isn’t all. “The committee will also focus on promoting national standards and oversight for forensic labs and practitioners,” BLT says.
It is time for national standards in the field of forensic science. We have had forensic labs across the country involved in serious scandals and forensic testimony in some jurisdictions more comic than useful.
“David A. Harris is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.” His blog, Failed Evidence, Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, is a continuing statement for a vital reform.
From around the web –
The article says, “Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.” The DoJ begin investigating in the 1990s “after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials.” As the Post article chronicles, the investigation was very narrowly drawn in spite of evidence that problems were likely more widespread. When problems were identified, the FBI gave notice to the relevant prosecutors, but not to defendants or their legal representatives. To judge by the sample the Post was able to track down, prosecutors notified defendants in only about half the cases. This is not the first case of slow or inadequate notification.
From the web site, Wobbly Warrior’s Blog:
The FBI announced some time ago that their “bullet lead analysis,” in use for approximately four decades, was of no value. They sent letters informing the @2,500 involved prosecutorial entities. Those prosecutorial entities did nothing. Law enforcement nationwide was aware of the FBI’s admission, and did nothing. The American Bar Association was aware, and did nothing. Aware that no reasonable reaction to their announcement had transpired, despite their color-of-law mandates, the FBI took no further action; a second letter to the actual inmates involved would have cost next to nothing.
And finally, from the web site, The Truth About Forensic Science:
Senator Leahy’s forensic science reform bill appears to be short on specifics and long on template. Problems with forensic science are no doubt ‘low-hanging fruit’ for political purposes. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the 2009 NAS report is in fact on Washington’s radar.