Live Blogging on the forensics report


Forensic week continues with journalist Dena Levitz reporting live from the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. on the long awaited release of the The Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community’s report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”

2:oo p.m. In the final exhange of the briefing, Don Murray, of the National Association of Counties, relayed his concern that there’s a serious lack of training for the shortage of forensic pathologists across the country. “They’re sometimes not trained enough to even be suspicious that a crime has been committeed,” he said.

In Minnesota, for example, some counties are absent a medical examiner and have to fly evidence to outlying areas. He then suggested a paraprofessional program to at least begin to add to the number of coroners. Edward’s response was that the focus must be on beefing up the medical side of the forensic community, not the coroner segment and that a paraprofessional addition wouldn’t solve the problem.

“We should be getting rid of the coroner system,” he said, “not having something less than what we think is ideal.This is medical work.”

1:53 p.m. A few-second pause followed a web question about the level of confidence Americans should have when it comes to the validity of courtroom evidence.

According to Edwards, the system can’t be judged in a sweeping generalization. “It’s impossible for me to say on any given case,” he said. The report’s purpose was to provide a framework for change. “If you claim to be science, you ought to put yourself to the test,” he said.

1:50 p.m. Cost remains a huge question mark. Co-chair Gatsonis noted that it was not the job of the experts to put a price tag in funding the national entity that would oversee. The main objective is simply to get started on an overhaul, they responded. It also was not part of their responsibilty to change the way judges rule on evidence.
Judges are beholden to the rules of evidence and “will continue to do what they’re doing,” Edwards said.

1:45 p.m. Both co-chairs claim strong interest exists in the harsh findings, even amid those in the forensic field who, in many cases, know they need reform.
Congress has been briefed and reacted positively, according to Edwards.
“Do you want us to beg?” he joked about whether the recommendations will be acted upon.”Our sense is there are people who are concerned and they ought to be concerned,” he continued, more seriously.

1:38 p.m. Asked by a reporter from Science Magazine about assertions in a Feb. 4 article that the the law enforcement community had stonewalled the committee in putting together the report, Edwards denied the charge flatly.
“That’s absolutely incorrect. There’s no truth to that,” he shot back.

1:33 p.m. Of the other recommendations announced in the long-awaited report, one that received the biggest reaction from a 100-person audience gathered at the National Academies of Science in D.C. was one to establish a national code of ethics for forensic professionals. Some laughter and a great deal of nodding followed the listing of this item.

1:20 p.m. Congress must establish and fund a new independent government body that will lead a “massive overhaul”of the nation’s broken forensic science system, one of the co-chairs of a special committee announced this afternoon.

Harry T. Edwards, senior circuit judge of D.C.’s Court of Appeals, announced that of 13 recommendations his group is making to drastically change the handling of forensic science, the most critical is the creation of the National Institute of Forensic Science.

“We are convinced that if it will serve our country well as a new, strong independent entity with no ties to past dysfunctions in the forensic science community,” Edwards explained.

His committee, which includes experts in legal and science fields, was charged in 2006 by Congressional officials with studying the current forensic structure and then suggesting areas for improvement.

The biggest surprise during the committee’s two years of study, Edwards said, was that simply upping staffing won’t fix serious deficiencies in the way courtroom evidence is handled. Rather it will take a “long-term agenda.”

The new national body would be led by a full-time director and advisory board. It was determined early on that no existing government entity was up to the task and of addressing current weaknesses in forensics.

“NIFT’s mission, as we envision it, will establish, enforce oversee and/or encourage best practices and robust performance standards,” he continued. “..It matters a great deal whether the (forensic) expert is qualified to testify about evidence. The adversary system we have had is not well suited to the task of finding scientific truth.”

12:50 p.m. We’re in a lecture hall in the National Academies of Science that holds close to 100 seated visitors. At this point about 35 people are here, glancing over press releases and quietly talking about the fact that this report is long over due.

The briefing calls for major reform including mandatory certification and accreditation for all forensic science professionals and the creation of a new, independent National Institute of Forensic Science to oversee the forensic science community.

When we get started the co-chairs of the committee that worked on this report, Harry T. Edwards, senior circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Constantine Gatsonis, director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University, are set to speak.

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