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Justice Requires Independent Forensic Science Unit, Op-ed Says

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The Justice Department decision to dissolve the independent National Commission on Forensic Science ends a collaborative forum that allowed stakeholders from scientists to judges to work together to advance forensic science and puts law enforcement back in control, a move that “threatens to stall and even reverse that progress,” said an op-ed in The Washington Post. | HappyLenses/Adobe Stock

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to disband the independent National Commission on Forensic Science is likely to jeopardize or even turn back advances that have helped reinforce the reliability of forensic evidence and keep the innocent from being falsely convicted.

This was the caution voiced by Rush Holt, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Jed S. Rakoff, a U.S. District judge for the Southern District of New York, in and op-ed published in The Washington Post on July 3.

“We urge the attorney general and his department to take a thorough look at the many thoughtful comments from concerned citizens and quickly reconsider this approach,” wrote Holt and Rakoff, pointing to more than 250 public comments published in the Federal Register.

The independent National Commission on Forensic Science has been “the primary forum through which scientists, forensic lab technicians, lawyers and judges have worked together to guide the future of forensic science,” since its creation in 2013, the two wrote, adding that putting law enforcement back in control of forensic science “threatens to stall and even reverse that progress.”

The Justice Department’s move also runs counter to the central recommendation of a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that raised questions about the reliability and validity of forensic techniques such as hair and footprints matching, bite mark analysis and bloodstain pattern analysis that have been the basis of the false convictions of at least 490 people since 1989 who were later exonerated, the two wrote.

“The NAS report found that too few forensic disciplines, other than DNA analysis, have adequate scientific basis,” Holt and Rakoff wrote. “The report also found that experts often overstate their claims in testimony, invoking unscientific terms like ‘scientific certainty’ and claiming 100 percent accuracy.”

Since 2013, the commission has provided a venue for diverse stakeholders to reach agreements that have led to the mandatory accreditation of government-used crime labs and the required disclosure of the full file of a forensic expert working for the prosecution to the defense team without delay, the two said. Sessions decided not to renew the commission’s charter before it expired on April 23.

Holt and Rakoff noted that many other recommendations for improving forensic techniques that the National Academy of Sciences outlined have been adopted by state and local crime labs and led to the implementation of codes of professional conduct governing forensic laboratories and other practices.

“With these improvements in providing justice, it is not time to pull back from the forensic commission,” they wrote.

In urging Sessions to take a fresh look at his April 10 announcement that he would let the commission's charter lapse, Holt and Rakoff stressed the importance of putting space between forensic science and the work of prosecutors and police officers.

“Forensic science requires conflict-free independent evaluation if it is to advance the truth,” they wrote. “People’s lives and our society’s faith in the American justice system are at stake.”

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