Foolproof Forensics? The Jury Is Still Out Commonplace crimefighting tools — from hair analysis to fingerprinting — have resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people. But they may not be as reliable as once thought. Scientists and Congress debate whether some techniques need more oversight.
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Foolproof Forensics? The Jury Is Still Out

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Foolproof Forensics? The Jury Is Still Out

Foolproof Forensics? The Jury Is Still Out

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The world of forensic science has been in turmoil for the past six months. In February, a prestigious panel released a study raising serious questions about many forensic techniques, from hair analysis to fingerprints. Those techniques have collectively assisted in thousands of criminal convictions. Now, people who do forensic science are at odds over how best to respond. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The landmark report on forensic science made headlines everywhere. Forensic techniques lack scientific validity. The report shook the legal community. People started asking whether defendants have been falsely convicted based on bad analysis of something like a bite mark. In the scientific world, physicist Thomas Bohan says the report's conclusions were not a surprise.

Dr. THOMAS BOHAN (President, American Academy of Forensic Sciences): Yeah, we know this. We know that they have lacked scientific evaluation.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Bohan is president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Dr. BOHAN: This report has given an opening, has given an opportunity to do something about it. And it would be such a terrible shame if it doesn't take place.

SHAPIRO: But every time there's a push for change there are political battles about what kind of change is best. And the debate over forensic sciences is no different. Crime lab directors want bigger budgets and more staff. Scientists want to start with research into which forensic techniques are valid. And some key recommendations from the people who wrote the report don't have much support from anyone.

For example, the study by the National Academy of Sciences recommends creating an independent organization to oversee forensic techniques.

Dr. CONSTANTINE GATSONIS (Cornell University): There is no entity like this right now. And hence, what you're seeing, is that every entity of the existing ones is just pulling in their own way.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Constantine Gatsonis co-chaired the committee that wrote the forensic science report.

Dr. GATSONIS: My personal opinion is that real progress is going to be very difficult to make without such an entity.

SHAPIRO: But realistically that proposal now looks all but dead. Scott Burns is executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive director, National District Attorneys Association): We don't agree with setting up a national institute of forensic science, another bureaucracy.

SHAPIRO: Congress will be the one to actually make these decisions. And a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer confirmed that in this economic climate creating a new body to oversee forensic sciences seems unlikely.

There are some things everyone agrees on, says Burns of the District Attorneys Association.

Mr. BURNS: Clearly accreditation of all private and public labs is important, that we ought to certify the analysts and the scientists. We've got to come up with some standards that everybody agrees are appropriate.

SHAPIRO: And everyone agrees 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.

Dr. BOHAN: We have respected people on both sides in the medical profession speaking very loudly, and now, more and more, with greater and greater vitriol, as to whether that theory is legitimate. And so to get off of go 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.

SHAPIRO: The money for studies and everything else has to come from Congress. All summer, constituent groups have been meeting with lawmakers and their staff, trying to win over the decision-makers.

Dr. Gatsonis, who wrote the study, says this seems typical.

Dr. GATSONIS: What is happening, I think, at this point, is the various constituencies are trying to see how best the report fits into their own agendas.

SHAPIRO: Gatsonis says, as a scientist he's disappointed, but as a citizen he's not surprised.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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