Five Years After Critical Forensic Science Report, “A Glimmer Of Progress”


It has been five years since the National Academy of Sciences issued a report condemning the state of forensic science. It concluded that many common forensic techniques—the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, blood splatter, and ballistics, for example—lack sufficient scientific underpinnings. Thousands of convictions were thrown into question. In the years since, says Chemical & Engineering News, little has been done to shore up the discipline's scientific base or to make sure that its methods don't result in wrongful convictions. Quality standards for forensic laboratories remain inconsistent. Funding to implement improvements is scarce. “Not much has happened,” says Jay Siegel, a forensic scientist on the committee that wrote the report.

While politicians and government workers debate changes that could help, fraudsters like Massachusetts forensic chemist Annie Dookhan keep operating in the system. No reform could stop criminal intent to do wrong, but a better system might have shown warning signs sooner. A glimmer of progress is starting to emerge at the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. These agencies are creating two oversight organizations that will attempt to make reform ideas a reality, both in Washington, D.C., and in forensic labs nationwide. The new National Commission on Forensic Science will attempt to take the National Academy's broad recommendations and turn them into action. After the 2009 report was released, the interagency National Science & Technology Council was supposed to make reform recommendations, but nothing from that effort has been publicly released. Congress hasn't had much luck either. Bills on the subject have made little progress.

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