When the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report on February 18 laying out serious shortcomings in forensic science, the nation's preeminent scientific organization also presented a road map for reform.
The NAS report shows that many forensic techniques which are relied on in courtrooms every day lack adequate scientific support. While DNA testing was developed through extensive scientific research at top academic centers, many other forensic techniques – such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, fingerprint analysis, firearms, tool marks and shoe print analysis – have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation.
Since experts agree that only 5-10% of a crime lab's work involves DNA testing and that overwhelmingly they rely on other forensic disciplines, it is all the more imperative that these other disciplines be subjected to rigorous evaluation to ensure their reliability.
At the Innocence Project, which assists prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing and works to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions, we've seen the consequences of inadequate forensic science first-hand. Of the 232 people nationwide have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, approximately half of the underlying wrongful convictions involved unvalidated or improper forensic science. For background on how forensic problems contribute to wrongful convictions, click here.
For a complete chart of wrongful convictions involving unvalidated or improper forensic science that were later overturned with DNA testing, click here.
The NAS report recommends the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science that would direct comprehensive research and evaluation in the forensic sciences, establish scientifically validated standards and oversee their consistent application nationwide. This new federal agency would begin to fix the problems upstream and avoid so many wrongful convictions in the first place. As a result, forensic science will play a more reliable role in identifying perpetrators of crime, protecting the wrongly accused and ensuring public safety.
Already, policymakers have responded favorably to the NAS report. Members of the House and Senate, from both sides of the aisle, have signaled that the NAS's findings are troubling and that Congress and the Administration have an important role to play in strengthening forensic science. And all of us have an important role to play in making sure the NAS report is fully studied and that its recommendations are implemented. As the report itself makes clear, the stakes are too high – and the consequences too stark – to miss this unparalleled opportunity for fundamental reform.
Mr. Neufeld is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. For more information, go to http://www.innocenceproject.org/.