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Saks, Popko review forensic science report

February 27, 2009

A new federal report that recommends an overhaul of the nation's forensic science system was discussed by Professors Michael Saks and Zig Popko, of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, during a segment on KJZZ's Here and Now program on Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Program host Steve Goldstein asked Saks, a co-chairman of an international conference about the future of forensic science that will be held at the College of Law on April 3-4, and Popko, director of the College's Post-Conviction Clinic, to talk about some of the problems that a National Academy of Sciences' Committee found during its exhaustive two-year study. The report is the centerpiece of the conference, which will include nearly three dozen experts from law and academia.

"You cannot underestimate the historic nature of this report," Saks said. "We have had forensic science coming to the courts for the better part of a century and now, in 2009, the report tells us the emperor has no clothes, there's no there there, the crime labs have failed to ensure that it's sound science."

Popko, a former federal public defender, said he was "almost shocked" by the report's conclusions. "Fingerprinting was the end all to be all, but when you read this report, fingerprinting is a lot more substandard than most people imagine, and that seems to be true of a lot of non-DNA evidence," he said.

A recommendation that crime labs be independent from police departments and prosecutors' offices is nothing new, said Saks, noting it's important that lab employees not be politically pressured to "tilt their conclusions" in favor of the prosecution.

Popko added, "They have a duty to the science and the truth and not so much to get the bad guy."

Among the NAS committee's primary recommendations is the creation of a separate federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science, which would promote and standardize accreditation, certification, research, technical development and other functions across the country.

"You do like to think that, if we're dealing with something we call science, it's the same in Maryland as it is in Arizona as it is in Wyoming," Saks said. "The most fundamental concern the report makes clear is the lack of science."

To listen to the full segment, click here.

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