“I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain,” [Sessions] said during a 2009 Senate hearing on the National Academy of Sciences report.
This would make more sense if Sessions had declared that leeches have been used for centuries, and he didn’t think anyone should suggest we should stop bleeding patients to address illness. What the NAS study showed was not that the opinion-based evidence Sessions and other prosecutors had been using was “proven.” What it showed was something else entirely.
The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country. This can only be done with effective leadership at the highest levels of both federal and state governments, pursuant to national standards, and with a significant infusion of federal funds.
President Obama followed up the report by creating a DOJ task force to deal with problems of pseudo-science in tests and improve the quality of forensic tests. Naturally, Jefferson Sessions has destroyed that task force.
The department’s new efforts include scrapping a group created by the Obama administration, the National Commission on Forensic Science, which brought together prosecutors, defense attorneys, crime lab chiefs, and scientists to create recommendations for improving the field.
Instead, Sessions is turning this issue over to his expert, Hunt. Why Hunt? He was one of the commissioners on the previous group, and he had a very specific record.
- When Obama’s commission called for forensics experts to be more exacting in the language they used to describe the certainty of tests, Hunt voted against it.
- When Obama’s commission called for stricter standards on accrediting forensics labs, Hunt voted against it.
- When Obama’s commission called for labs to show more transparency in how tests were done, Hunt voted against it.
- When Obama’s commission called for a scientific review of many widely used tests, Hunt … voted against it.
Hunt’s charge, as explained by the department, is to create standards for experts so that “the Department’s forensic testimony is consistent with scientific principles and just outcomes.” Given his votes on the commission, critics of unchecked forensic testimony have doubts that his work will truly be scientific.
The NAS study was ordered by Congress in 2006. Subsequent studies, including one in 2015, found that common tests had enormous error rates, even among the people supposedly best in the field.
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.
DNA has proven to be accurate in many (but not all) situations, and has been an effective means for not only pointing the arrow of guilt at the right party, but freeing the innocent from prison. No matter how cool it looks on TV, the rest of forensics may be sending far more innocent people to jail than prosecutors are willing to admit.