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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro filling in for Renee Montagne.

The nation's crime labs need a total overhaul. That's the conclusion the National Academy of Sciences reached in a study that they released yesterday. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, it turns out that forensic evidence isn't nearly as iron clad as it appears on television.

(Soundbite of song, "Baba O'Riley")

Mr. ROGER DALTRY (Singer, The Who): (Singing) Out here in the fields…

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, if you recognize that music as a TV theme song, you are probably one of the millions of people who watch "CSI" or Crime Scene Investigation.

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And according to the National Academy of Sciences report, frankly, you're part of the problem. The NAS actually calls it the "CSI effect." Apparently, after watching blood spatters analyzed and carpet fibers tweezered night after night, there's a sense out there that forensic evidence is infallible.

(Soundbite of TV show, "CSI")

Ms. MARG HELGENBERGER (As Catherine Willows): This brand of drugs is a signature to one specific distributor.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): The street name is Nemo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In fact, the NAS says studies show "CSI" viewers — and even judges and lawyers — are under the impression that the techniques that they see on the show are science at work. And they aren't. Judge Harry Edwards is one of the co-chairs of the NAS committee.

Judge HARRY EDWARDS (Co-chairman, National Academy of Sciences): The quality of practice in forensic science disciplines varies greatly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Edwards's committee found that while some forensic evidence, like DNA, is top-notch, other evidence, like fingerprints for example, is not nearly so reliable. Barry Scheck is one of the co-directors of the Innocence Project, which, among other things, has overturned convictions using forensic evidence.

Mr. BARRY SCHECK (Co-director, Innocence Project): Whether it's hair analysis, fiber comparison, bite marks, even fingerprints, judges and juries have heard this evidence, they think it's solid, and then they rely on it to come up with convictions that later have been proved to be wrong.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's one of the reasons why the NAS report recommends a forensic science overhaul. It wants forensic experts to be certified. It wants to train technicians and supervise crime labs. It calls for separating the science in a crime scene investigation from the police work. And the committee wants to create a new federal agency to oversee all this.

It's not at all clear how this would happen. For one thing, Congress may not want to spend the money to create a new agency. And Congress might have trouble legislating local police practices from Washington.

Professor EUGENE O'DONNELL (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): We have a real national hodgepodge when it comes to science and law enforcement.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Eugene O'Donnell, a former prosecutor and now professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says that law enforcement across the country is so diverse it would be hard for Congress to enforce forensic standards at a grass-roots level. That said, he does credit the report with getting a conversation going about forensic evidence and how to make it more scientific.

Prof. O'DONNELL: This report offers an opportunity to start rethinking where science should be and what its proper relationship should be with law enforcement.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As a general matter, law enforcement has supported the NAS suggestions, with the exception of one. The NAS says crime labs should be independent and not part of police departments or prosecutors' offices. Investigators say that could be a problem. Right now, a forensic examiner can call the police right away when some piece of evidence is useless. Because of that it allows investigators to go back to the crime scene while evidence is still fresh. O'Donnell says there's a balance to strike.

Prof. O'DONNELL: When this system works best, you have that proper mix of independence, and yet you have law enforcement being able to weigh in and provide background and context as the investigation is being pursued.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He says it isn't clear how independent labs will allow that to happen. Think about going to a doctor's office and getting a blood test, he said. The doctor sends it to an independent lab, and it takes days to get results. Investigators often don't have the luxury of time if there's a criminal on the loose.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can read highlights of the National Academy of Science's report on forensics at npr.org.

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