“People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprint, fire-arms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting. The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court.”
(Solomon Moore, New York Times)
The concluding NAS-Report is a document of 254 pages and contains many observations and recommendations regarding forensic science. Furthermore, it criticizes the way the community conducts its business.
The following paragraph provides a short overview of the history of this report and the resulting recommendations.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was formed in 2006 by a committee of congressional mandates. Essentially eight areas of responsibility were defined in order to identify the needs of the Forensic Science Community. The 2005 report of the Senate reports the following responsibilities:
1) Assess the present and future resource needs of the forensic science community, to include State and local crime labs, medical examiners, and coroners
2) Make recommendations for maximizing the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public
3) Identify potential scientific advances that may assist law enforcement in using forensic technologies and techniques to protect the public
4) Make recommendations for programs that will increase the number of qualified forensic scientists and medical examiners available to work in public crime laboratories
5) Disseminate best practices and guidelines concerning the collection and analysis of forensic evidence to help ensure quality and consistency in the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public
6) Examine the role of the forensic community in the homeland security mission
7) Interoperability of Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems [sic]
8) Examine additional issues pertaining to forensic science as determined by the Committee
The NAS-committee consisted of a cross-section of many different professional groups within forensic sciences. After two years of research and evaluation, the results were published in a report in 2009.
The core of the report
The report criticizes the bad structure within the forensic science community. It points out the disparities in financing, educational background of the employees and access to technology. Another problem are the great differences between the federal and the state law-enforcement agencies. Additionally, the report reveals an existing lack of scientific research in all forensic disciplines, except DNA analysis: most of the methods are neither consistent nor repeatable.
Summing up, the underlying tone of the report is not negative. Quite the contrary: it offers solutions to counteract the problems:
“The report offers no judgment about past convictions or pending cases, and it offers no view as to whether the courts should reassess cases that already have been tried. Rather, the report describes and analyzes the current situation in the forensic science community and makes recommendations for the future.” (NAS press release of 2009)
The consequences for the forensic-science-community
The NAS recommends a consistent leadership in the scientific community, to form an “independent federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS)”.
The new federal entity, NIFS, focuses on:
1) Establishing best practices for forensic science
2) Establishing standards for mandatory accreditation and certification
3) Promoting research
4) Improving forensic-science research and educational programs
5) Strategizing to create funding for all types of forensic methodologies
6) Funding state and local forensic-science agencies, independent research projects, and educational programs
7) Overseeing education standards and accreditation of forensic-science programs in colleges and universities
8) Helping to improve the understanding of forensic science within the legal system
9) Assessing new technologies in forensic investigation