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Congress seeks to improve forensic science testing

By: Denise M. Champagne//July 18, 2012

Congress seeks to improve forensic science testing

By: Denise M. Champagne//July 18, 2012

Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday about improving forensic science testing. Screenshot of hearing from computer by Vasiliy Baziuk

National standards for forensic laboratories are useless unless research is done to validate the science, the head of the Innocence Project told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Wednesday.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, was one of four witnesses testifying on “Improving Forensic Science in the Criminal Justice System.” He brought with him two men from the Washington, D.C., area who had recently been exonerated of crimes they did not commit, after each had spent more than 30 years in prison.

Neufeld said the two men had been convicted on microscopic hair evidence analyzed by the FBI crime laboratory, which, with the Department of Justice as announced last week, is reviewing thousands of old cases for potentially flawed evidence.

The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, is partnering with the Justice Department in its review.

Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held up a copy of a Washington Post paper containing a front-page story on the FBI lab matter and talked about legislation he introduced in January 2011 to strengthen the reliability and accuracy of forensic evidence in criminal matters.

The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S132) would require the accreditation of forensic science laboratories that receive federal funding and certification of forensic science professionals who work in those laboratories.

Leahy also referred to a 2009 study, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” by the National Academy of Sciences, which he said points out significant problems in the forensic science field that urgently need to be addressed.

“We’re going to reconsider how best to ensure the effectiveness of forensic evidence used in criminal cases,” Leahy said, opening the hearing. “It’s essential to make sure the criminal justice system works best for all Americans.”

Leahy said the worst thing that can happen in society is having innocent people convicted and failing to convict the guilty.

“This is a very important hearing,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s ranking member. “We want to make sure the forensic science system is as good as it can be.”

He talked about whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI lab agent whom Grassley said risked his career to call into question the integrity of the FBI laboratory. Grassley said wrongful convictions are rare and usually the result of bad practices, not the science itself, which he said some are claiming is invalid.

He wants to focus on improving the system “without throwing the baby out with the bath water,” determine what kind of improvements will be the most efficient and effective, and how any changes will relate to the existing system.

More resources and support are needed, said Stephanie Stoiloff, senior police bureau commander for the Miami-Dade Police Department, testifying on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“The first and greatest need is funding,” she said, noting that the federal government allocated $1 billion to address a backlog in processing DNA evidence.

“That’s one discipline alone,” Stoiloff said. “Have we now put a price on public safety? We know what the problem is. The question is: What is going to be done about it?”

In addition to money, she said strong national leadership is needed, along with more higher education programs and internships to assist the forensic science community.

Jill Spriggs, president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, said the nation’s crime labs need to be addressed as a single system and must have the capacity to process all evidence in a timely and accurate manner.

She said she was speaking on behalf of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, which represents more than 12,000 forensic service providers.

Spriggs said the organization is supportive of a federal role, but that it is critical to have input from active practitioners in the field. She said half of the country is uses untrained or minimally trained technicians and the other half are highly trained. Testifying on behalf of 39,000 prosecutors was Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, who said no prosecutors were on the panel that developed the National Academy of Sciences report.

Burns said state and local prosecutors handle 95 percent of all criminal cases in the nation and that there is no truth to reports that they have been trying to curtail efforts to reform forensic sciences.

“Prosecutors support such research efforts, as one might expect that we would, as any research that provides greater accuracy and reliability to the evidence we regularly present in courtrooms benefits our mission,” Burns said.

He also discussed Neufeld’s testimony regarding the Innocence Project’s exoneration of 294 people on DNA evidence since 1989, saying that while the NDA agrees one wrongfully convicted person is too many and “a prosecutor’s worst nightmare,” there are 10 million serious crimes and prosecutions nationally, or 220 million since 1989.

Burns said while 294 is a great concern, it represents less than 1 percent of all convictions and that 99.9 percent “is a pretty good record.”

Agreeing even one wrongful conviction is horrendous, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Neufeld about other cases.

“Are there other cases we don’t know about?” Franken asked. “What’s the scope of the problem and what role does forensic science play?”

Neufeld said the scope of the problem is unknown; that the Innocence Project looks at people exonerated by DNA, but that hundreds of people are exonerated by other means and there are wrongfully convicted people in cases in which there is no biological evidence to exonerate.

Leahy concluded by saying the committee will work to put together legislation to create a better system.

Burns reiterated that it is key for prosecution and law enforcement to be included, noting they “get beat up every day” over the exceptions.

“The only time prosecutors come to the media is when the plane crashes, not when they land safely,” he said, commending the Innocence Project, but adding that there is some kind of perception that the entire system is broken.

“Nobody talks about homicides are down 50 percent in this country,” Burns said. “This is a much safer country. I just want to make the point the system is not broken and the sky is not falling.”

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