This blog will update you on the state of Current Issues in Forensic Sciences as it relates to DUI arrests.
Fingerprints. DNA. Bite marks. Polygraphs. Ballistics. Blood spatters. Gas chromatography. Burn Patterns. Handwriting. Toxicology. All of these areas of forensic science provide a window into explaining the evidence collected from crime scenes and alleged suspects. Watch an episode of CSI, and you’re likely to turn off the T.V. believing that these methods are infallible because science doesn’t lie—criminals can’t escape from science!
Inconsistencies in Forensic Sciences
But five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report addressing the state of forensic sciences in our country based on years of study and research, and NAS expressed an unsettling concern about the lack of consistency, quality control, and, most importantly, reliability. After five years of increasing criticism and overturning convictions that were “founded in science” (like the high-profile cases of Gerard Richardson and Cameron Todd Willingham), the federal government is finally taking action.
Developing Uniform Codes for Professional Responsibility
Another current issue in forensic science is the changing of standards. Scientific American and Nature magazines’ article, “Faulty Forensic Science Under Fire,” by Sara Reardon, reports that the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are collaborating in order to create the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group of “37 scientists, lawyers, forensics practitioners and law-enforcement officials” that “aims to advise on government policies such as training and certification standards.”
According to the Department of Justice, “the commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility” within the forensic sciences.
Forensic Sciences Training and Accreditation
As we have been mentioning on the AZDUI blog, training and accreditation is just one step that needs to be taken. Reardon notes that “even good standards and best practices do not mean that a technique is solid…polygraph operators, for instance, can obtain consistent test results, but whether the machines accurately detect lies is highly uncertain.”
One goal that this new National Commission on Forensic Sciences should set is establishing when and how various methods could be used. For example, Reardon cites bite mark analysis, which was used in Richardson’s case, and notes that bite marks cannot reliably identify who left the mark but can more certainly exclude suspects.
Current issues in Forensic Science That Must Change for Criminal Cases
Another current issue in forensic science considering the time that passed since some of these issues have been argued. It has now been more than twenty years since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. This was a decision that jumpstarted the movement toward reforming scientific evidence in trials.
With all of the advances and burgeoning theories in the sciences, the Court realized that someone on the witness stand just declaring some process to have a scientific basis isn’t enough.
There needs to be “a preliminary assessment of whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue.” Allowing a jury to make a decision without such a basis compromises the integrity of our system—and for Gerard Richardson, meant going to prison for a crime he did not commit.
At the end of the day, the commission needs to maintain a focus on making our justice system the best it can be.
As stated by Tania Simoncelli, Assistant Director for Forensic Science in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, “ensuring that only the most reliable forensic science and testimony make their way to the courtroom is a powerful tool for counteracting inequality and unfairness in America . . . ”