The Washington Post laments the long backlogs for analysis of DNA, fingerprints, fibers, drugs, and other types of forensic evidence at publicly funded crime labs. The newspaper editorializes that the backlogs have contributed to occasional miscarriages of justice, including probably guilty suspects who walk free and others, wrongly charged, who languish in jail for want of timely forensic analysis. The $100 million-plus appropriated annually by Congress in recent years to expand the DNA testing capacityhas helped, but not enough to prevent huge backups in many places. Less glamorous types of forensic testing have received a pittance from Washington.
Another problem is the “the CSI effect” — wildly inflated expectations of jurors who expect real-life investigations to be as crisply resolved and as subject to scientific certainty as the television variety. A congressionally mandated committee, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, is examining the range of challenges facing practitioners of forensic science, including inadequate training and education of technicians; flawed testing techniques; insufficiently rigorous standards of evidence analysis; spotty proficiency testing; and erratic accreditation regimens. The committee, chaired by federal appellate judge Harry T. Edwards of Washington, D.C., and Constantine Gatsonis, director of Brown University’s Center for Statistical Sciences, is expected to report next summer. The Post says it “could perform a real service, both by highlighting what has become a dire problem at all levels of law enforcement and by recommending some badly needed standards for a fast-growing field of science.”