MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
The prestigious panel is calling into question the labs and methods used to solve crimes. The report from the National Academy of Sciences says the nation's forensic science system has serious deficiencies and needs major reform. It's calling for the creation of an independent institute for forensic science. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the biggest advances in forensics in recent years has been DNA testing. It's helped police solve crimes and at the same time, it's revealed that some innocent people have been convicted in the past - in part because of testimony based on faulty forensic science. So a few years ago, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to look at the entire field.
J: And they wrote a list of all the things we ought to look at. It was a sweeping list.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Harry Edwards is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. He co-chaired the committee that wrote the report. It discusses everything from the scientific basis of forensic tests like hair analysis to whether there is adequate oversight of labs, to how analysts testify in court.
J: And it took us over two years to do it. We did it as carefully as we could. And tried to read and hear from everybody in the field.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The result is a nearly 300-page document.
NORRIS: The focus is not to damn the past. It's just to explain that what we have now is not working as well as it ought to be working.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report says there's no mandatory certification for forensic scientists, who are a diverse group of people who work in many parts of the criminal justice system. And as far as labs are concerned, they're underfunded and understaffed. And many operate with no effective oversight. Constantine Gatsonis co-chaired the panel. He is a biostatistics professor at Brown University.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's a real need for standards, uniformity, accreditation, and quality control of labs.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he says when the committee looked at older forensic techniques - things like comparisons of hair or fingerprints - they found that there wasn't a lot of scientific research to back up claims that are often made for this evidence in court.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And a consistent thing that comes up is, we haven't done the kinds of studies that are necessary to be done.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report is also critical of forensic analysts who assert in court that evidence besides DNA is a quote, match, to a particular person or source. It points out that in forensic testimony, there's often a failure to acknowledge uncertainty. Judge Harry Edwards says the findings of the report are actually not all that surprising.
J: This is not a secret that there are issues. Why hasn't it come out in a careful way before? I don't know.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report calls for distancing oversight of forensic science from law enforcement agencies, and proposes an independent National Institute of Forensic Science. The committee says the problems are too systemic to be solved on a case-by-case basis by the courts. Brandon Garrett has studied how courts handle forensic evidence in cases where people were convicted but later exonerated by DNA testing. He's a law professor at the University of Virginia who recently looked at transcripts from a 137 of those trials.
He says the original forensic evidence was often presented in an invalid way.
P: Sixty percent of the time, that forensic evidence - as presented by a prosecution analyst - was exaggerated, overstated.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But defense lawyers generally didn't challenge it.
P: Defense lawyers rarely even asked a single question about that subject.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This week, thousands of forensic science professionals are meeting in Denver at the annual convention of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Its president is Stetson University law professor Carol Henderson. She says the new report is getting a lot of attention.
P: It is the topic of conversation, that's what I must tell you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says her organization and others have already been promoting things discussed in the report - such as the need for new research and standards.
P: I think it is a wonderful opportunity for enhancing, you know, strides that we've already made into the forensic sciences.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says she expects that Congress will be having hearing to look at what should come next. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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