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Federal judge lectures on forensic science issues

April 06, 2009

The scores of talented people working to help the criminal justice system identify the guilty and exclude the innocent deserve strong, independent leadership, improved training, support from Congress and, most of all, better science, a federal judge recently told an audience at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

"The problems with the forensic sciences are serious and cannot be cured without significant Congressional action," said the Honorable Harry T. Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge and Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Judge Edwards made his remarks on Friday, April 3, during the 13th annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture in the College of Law's Great Hall. The lecture, established in 1997 in memory of the founding dean of the law school, was held in conjunction with a two-day international conference, "Forensic Science for the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond."

Judge Edwards, a co-chairman of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Forensic Science Committee which in February recommended sweeping changes to the United States' forensic science system, was introduced at the lecture by Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the College of Law.

"This report is a blockbuster, and we are thrilled to host the first major conference in the country responding to its recommendations," Berman said. "It is also a distinct personal pleasure to welcome Judge Edwards. He has for years been a great mentor and friend."

Over the course of more than two years, members of the NAS panel, a collection of experts in various fields from academia, engineering and forensic science to law, medicine and science, listened to and read materials published by many experts. In its comprehensive report, the committee called for substantial fixes to a "badly fragmented" system.

"One of the most telling moments for me during the committee hearings occurred when an expert fingerprint analyst was asked what the scientific basis was for determining a match for prints when there was only a smudged or partial print," Judge Edwards recalled, "and the expert did not hesitate to concede the research had yet to be done."

Forensic science encompasses a broad range of disciplines such as toxicology, drug analysis, fingerprints, handwriting samples, hair specimens, bite marks and tool marks. This work is critically important to the criminal justice system, but the environments in which the work is done are fraught with inconsistencies, partly because crime-lab accreditation is not mandatory, nor is certification for forensic science professionals, he said.

And because forensic science lacks the rigorous research and scrutiny that, for example, DNA analysis has benefited from, it has been labeled "junk science." It also suffers from "The CSI Effect" due to popular television dramas that routinely portray heinous crimes as solvable in 45 minutes.

While the committee's report contained 13 recommendations for improvements, one theme rose to the top. "The most important part of the report is the call for real science to support the forensic science disciplines," said Judge Edwards, who urged universities to accelerate the training of undergraduate students in pursuing research in the forensic sciences and to support Ph.D. candidates and encourage cross-disciplinary research in the physical and life sciences. "Better science will take time."

The judge emphasized the importance of the recommendation that forensic experts be required to use standardized, honest, and clear terminology in reporting on and testifying about the results of forensic science investigations. "When their testimony is admitted, forensic experts should offer nothing more than what they actually know, leaving it to the jury or judge to weigh the evidence offered against the other evidence that is presented in a case," he said.

Judge Edwards also stressed the committee's recommendation that all public forensic laboratories and facilities should be removed from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors' offices.

"The simple point," he said, "is that forensic scientists should function independently of law enforcement administrators" to ensure that they do not "face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency."

"The committee did not say to put crime labs on an island, and no one can talk to them," Judge Edwards said. "What we're trying to say is let them do the science without tainting their work. Let them do the science, and then talk to them."

Judge Edwards said he is of the view that judicial review, by itself, will not cure the infirmities of the forensic science community. Good science includes two attributes that the law needs from the forensic disciplines: valid and reliable methodologies that enable the accurate analysis of evidence and reporting of results, and practices that minimize the risk of results being dependent on subjective judgments or tainted by error or the threat of bias, he said.

"Because of the many problems presently faced by the forensic science community and the inherent limitations of the judicial system, the forensic science community as it is now constituted cannot consistently serve the judicial system as well as it might," the judge said. "And lawyers and judges should not be counted on to fix the science problem. What we need is for the forensic science community to improve so that it better serves the needs of justice."

The key to better science is the creation of a new federal agency, "one that is objective, free of bias, with no ties to the past, with authority and resources" to oversee the forensic science community and to strengthen its various parts, Judge Edwards said. The committee recommended the agency be called the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS).

"A massive overhaul is needed to improve scientific research and to improve the practices in the forensic science community, and I don't think this will happen without NIFS," he said. "I hope Congress has the resolve and wisdom to fully back the reforms we so badly need."

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law