Foolproof Forensics? The Jury Is Still Out

The world of forensic science has been in turmoil for the last six months since a prestigious panel released a study raising serious questions about many forensic techniques from hair analysis to fingerprints.

Those techniques have collectively resulted in thousands of people landing in prison — and now groups within the forensic science community are fighting over what the next steps should be.

Physicist Thomas Bohan says scientists knew for years that many forensic techniques "lacked scientific evaluation," but there was no political will to do anything about it. Now the report by the National Academy of Sciences offers "an opening, an opportunity," Bohan says.

"It will be a terrible shame if change doesn't take place," says Bohan, who is president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

An Argument Over Next Steps

But every time there is a push for change, there are political battles about what kind of change is best. The debate over forensic science is no different.

Crime lab directors want bigger budgets and more staff. Scientists want to start with research into which forensic techniques are valid.

Some key recommendations from the people who wrote the report don't have much support from anyone. For example, the report recommends creating an independent organization to oversee forensic techniques.

"There is no entity like this right now," says Constantine Gatsonis, who co-chaired the committee that wrote the forensic sciences report. "And hence what you've seen is every entity pulling in [its] own way. My personal opinion is that real progress is going to be very difficult without such an entity."

But that proposal now looks all but dead.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says his members "don't agree with setting up a national institute of forensic science, another bureaucracy."

Congress will make these decisions. And a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer — speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is still under discussion — said that in this economic climate it seems unlikely the government will create a new body to oversee forensic science.

Accreditation, Certification And Further Research

There are some steps everyone appears to agree on, according to Burns, such as accreditation of all public and private labs, certification of forensic analysts and scientists and universal standards for certain forensic techniques.

Everyone also seems to agree that some areas will need further research.

For example, Bohan of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences points to shaken baby syndrome. Parents and caregivers have been convicted of murder on the theory that a certain type of internal bleeding is almost always caused by shaking a baby.

"We have respected people on both sides of the medical profession speaking very loudly and now with greater and greater vitriol as to whether that theory is legitimate," Bohan says. "We've got to have somebody like the National Academy of Sciences look at all of the studies that are put forth as validating that theory — and see whether they're valid."

The money for such projects has to come from Congress, and all summer constituent groups have been meeting with lawmakers and their staff, trying to win over the decision-makers.

"What is happening at this point is the various constituencies are trying to see how best the report fits into their own agendas," Gatsonis says.

As a scientist, Gatsonis says he is disappointed to see the turf battles — but as a citizen he is not surprised.

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