Law conference puts forensic science under microscope
Leading practitioners and scholars of forensic science will gather in April at the College of Law to examine a new federal report that makes recommendations for overhauling a broken system that lacks funding, staffing, research, training, accuracy and consistency.
"Forensic Science for the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond," sponsored by the College's Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology, will be April 3-4 in Armstrong Hall. More than three dozen speakers are to lecture or participate in panels in response to the Academy's report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," released Feb. 18.
"This conference is a veritable who's who of the world's most important judges, scholars, lawyers, and forensic scientists, all discussing how best to ensure that science is harnessed in the service of evidentiary truth," said Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the College of Law. "It is the sort of conference that is the hallmark of a publicly engaged law school such as ours."
Among the conference participants are members of the NAS Forensic Science Committee, including its co-chairs, the Honorable Harry T. Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge and Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Constantine Gatsonis, Professor of Medical Science (Biostatistics) and Founding Director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University. Other experts in forensic science, criminalistics and scientific evidence, including Henry Lee, Chief Emeritus of the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory, Peter J. Neufeld, co-director of The Innocence Project, and Chris Hassell, director of the FBI Crime Laboratory, are scheduled to participate.
The work of the NAS committee, which was appointed in 2006 by a Congressional mandate, and the implementation of its recommendations, are essential to ensure respect for the United States' criminal justice system, said Larry Hammond, a criminal-defense attorney in Phoenix and a founder of the Arizona Justice Project.
"Over the years we have had ample examples of failed justice when science does not live up to its promise whether through ineffectual use of science, over-stated opinions or, in a few cases, malfeasance," said Hammond, who will speak at the conference. "Convicting innocent people and allowing guilty ones to go free is unacceptable to everyone."
"Forensic science needs help," said Barry A.J. Fisher, crime laboratory director at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a conference panelist. "And the NAS report says just that. It's not getting down into the weeds where you're looking at various areas in any detail, but it gives policy makers a laundry list of things that need to be looked at. Hopefully, they'll create an entity to ride herd over all these things and move it forward."
One of the report's 13 recommendations is that a separate agency, to be called the National Institute of Forensic Science, be created and funded by Congress to develop the science into "a mature field of multidisciplinary research and practice." Fisher said he's optimistic that the new administration, led by a president who seems to value science, university research and public safety, will get behind that recommendation.
NAS Committee member Jay Siegel, who will participate in a panel about forensic science from within, said he does not expect it to be a smooth process.
"The idea of creating any federal agency, albeit an independent one, is a controversial suggestion," said Siegel, professor and director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The biggest problem with the report, said conference panelist Carrie Sperling, director of the Arizona Justice Project, is that it doesn't address how the use of "junk science" in past criminal trials should be remedied.
"As the report notes, civil defendants have been fairly successful in keeping junk science out of the courtroom," said Sperling, a Visiting Clinical Professor at the College of Law, "but criminal defendants almost never win that kind of challenge, even though we know some forensic science techniques are not scientific and not reliable."
Sperling added, "The report doesn't make any recommendations for the courts to handle past convictions based on unreliable forensic science. It makes the blanket statement, `No view is expressed as to whether courts should reassess cases that have already been tried'."
Hammond said the report affirms what people working in the field have known all along: forensic science isn't real science, at least not yet.
"It's a national recognition of the failures of forensic science in our country," Hammond said. "There are now something like 50 of these innocence projects like ours around the country, and we all have been struggling with these cases that deal with ballistics, bite marks, arson debris, so-called forensic sciences, and we still have people who are passing themselves off as bite mark experts, we still have crime labs that don't properly test evidence ... this report and its recommendations turn the corner on that."
The NAS committee also urged that public forensic science laboratories should be made independent from police departments and prosecutors' offices, to ensure the efficacy of their work and to resolve any cultural pressures caused by the differing missions of crime labs and law enforcement.
In addition to the estimated 375 crime labs in the U.S., Fisher said, many police departments have forensics units, in which fingerprint and other evidence examinations and crime-scene investigations are conducted. To require their relocation would cause "a hue and cry" among police organizations, and lose sight of the more important concerns in the report, he said.
"We have a really tough time getting the resources to do the job, and being in a police agency, we have a much better chance of getting labor funded than we do on our own," Fisher said.
Siegel said other states have successfully separated crime labs from police agencies either by housing them in the Attorney General's Office or investigations bureaus.
"You can't get objective, well-funded science when you are competing with bullets and police cars," he said.
But forensic science isn't irreparable, Siegel said. "Broken implies `can't be fixed,' you broke a dish and are throwing it out," he said. "With Congress and the public, you have to walk a fine line between the view that there are some serious issues with forensic science and being an alarmist."
Another key recommendation is mandatory certification of forensic-science professionals and mandatory accreditation of their laboratories, a point Siegel supports.
"Barbers, hospital labs, blood banks - all have to be licensed," he said. "That crime labs needn't be is just a travesty."
The conference will include experts from universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, the University of Michigan Law School, University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Virginia and ASU, among others, in addition to state and federal judges, the president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, prosecutors, defense attorneys, forensic scientists, and criminalists.
The conference is co-sponsored by the National Judicial College and the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice and Science and Technology Law sections. For more information, go to http://lst.law.asu.edu/.
Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law