Journal Club Review – What happened to the “Science” of Forensics?

April’s journal club was lead by Jenny Bratburd. Journal club review was written by Amanda Hurley (Postdoc in Jo Hanelsman’s lab).

There was no error rate,” declared an expert witness who took the stand in a 2010 murder case when asked about his ballistic firearm analysis. Science is an industry of evolving hypotheses, constantly remodeling and improving “fact.” Similarly, every method, every instrument has detection limits and variability. So when I read the above quote in the article for CaSP’s Wednesday night journal club on the state of forensic science…I was horrified.

Not only does this example include pseudoscience (comparative bullet analysis was abandoned by the FBI in 2005), it displays a problem rooted in the culture of the courtroom. If a jury is made of humans that can be influenced by passion, is there room for an expert witness touting confidence intervals and limits of detection?

It wasn’t until the DNA revolution in the late 1980s that the prevalence of wrongful convictions was revealed. According to the Innocence Project, forty-five percent of these wrongful convictions included faulty forensic “evidence.” It is clear that without proper oversight, the misrepresentation of science can put innocent people in jail.

To address the growing problem, the National Academy of Science published a 2009 report titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the US,” which happened to be the 20 year anniversary of the first DNA-based exoneration. In fact, the report found little scientific support for most forensic disciples (pattern-impression evidence, bite marks, microscopic hair comparison, even fingerprints!).  Only DNA analysis escaped the report’s critical eye. Recommendations included improved oversight, standardization and research into forensic science, which would be governed by a new federal entity: National Institute for Forensic Science (NIFS).

Poor NIFS never made it to existence. Instead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology established a National Commission on Forensic Science, which in its brief four years of existence managed to draft some standards for expert FBI testimony before Jeff Sessions axed the whole thing in 2017.

With the federal system fumbling forensic science reform, it’s up to the states to take charge. Some states, like Texas, are doing exemplary work. The Texas Forensic Science Commission established an accreditation system for laboratories and investigates allegations of negligence and misconduct in forensic disciplines. While no such commission exists in our home state of Wisconsin, we do have the heroic efforts of Dr. Keith Findley and the Wisconsin Innocence Project to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons. But wouldn’t it be easier if we just didn’t put those people in jail in the first place?

It seems obvious that forensic science reform and oversight would prevent this mess rather than deploying minds and resources to clean it up. The tricky part is how to approach the subject without insulting law enforcement and the legal system? CaSP is tackling these issues in a memo with the hope of publication in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. The memo will reinforce the dire need for a forensic science commission in Wisconsin using the Texas coalition as a structural guide. To make this memo palatable to the WI legislature, we plan to highlight the success of the Texas commission. Strengthening forensic science will make WI safer as criminals will be less likely to escape justice. Furthermore, there will always be crime. With current standards in place, wrongful convictions will continue and, so far, WI has exonerated 105 people according the National Registry of Exonerations. Each wrongful conviction could cost the state of Wisconsin up to $25,000, not including potential lawsuits. Even with the worst exoneree compensation in the country, if we repeat the past, WI will be spending over $2.6 million dollars fixing mistakes. Why not invest that money now to make WI a safer, more just place to live?

CaSP will continue following the progress of forensic science reform at the state and federal level. We are currently drafting the forensic science memo and would be humbled to see it published. Stay tuned for updates!