Matthew T. Mangino
April 14, 2017
The Trump Administration’s assault on science has moved to the Department of Justice.
Climate science was the first target. Climate deniers have challenged the idea that global warming is real and that greenhouse gases are the culprit. One of President Donald Trump’s first actions was to freeze spending at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then he appointed Scott Pruitt, an avowed climate change denier to lead the Agency. He has been a relentless opponent of basic pollution limits as well, the kind that protect the environment from mercury, smog, arsenic and other deadly air toxins, reported Time. He also questions whether toxic mercury pollution is hazardous to public health.
Now science deniers have control of the Department of Justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will end the National Commission on Forensic Science, a Justice Department partnership with independent scientists to raise forensic science standards. He has also suspended an expanded review of FBI testimony across several techniques, like hair sample analysis, that have come under question.
The DOJ is returning forensic science to the control of the very men and women who, at times, are tempted to use questionable forensic evidence to build a prosecution and seek a conviction.
The Obama Justice Department established the Commission to take an active role in developing policy recommendations and coordinating implementation. The Commission scientists were working to develop and propose discipline-specific practice guidance that would have become publicly available and be considered for endorsement by the Commission and the Attorney General.
The disbanding of the Commission is even more baffling in light of the FBI’s admission that, after reviewing 500 cases that employed microscopic hair analysis, examiners’ testimony contained erroneous statements in at least 90 percent of the cases.
The review was part of an ongoing, decades-long investigation of FBI microscopic hair analysis. The FBI was conducting the review in partnership with the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The review began in July 2013, and covered the first 500 cases of an estimated 3,000 cases spanning more than 30 years. That effort has been halted by Sessions.
Questionable forensic science doesn’t end there. At least 24 individuals charged or convicted, of murder or rape, based at least in part on identifying bite marks on the flesh of victims have been exonerated since 2000, according to the Innocence Project. A small group of dentists belonging to the American Society of Forensic Odontologists are responsible for the proliferation of bite-mark analysis. Those dentists’ findings are often key evidence in prosecutions -- even though there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin. The FBI doesn’t use it, and the American Dental Association does not recognize it.
There is even more evidence under scrutiny -- fingerprints, shoe and tire tread prints, tool marks, ballistics and even bias in line-up and eyewitness identification.
A blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences raised concerns with forensic evidence in 2009. The report found nearly every familiar staple of forensic science scientifically unsound, wrote Erin E. Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times.
As far back as 2003, Kenneth Melson, then President of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a former prosecutor and Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, wrote: “(M)ore research is needed in the techniques and (forensic) science already in use ... Method validation studies and new research must be ongoing even in the areas of traditional forensic science disciplines. Justice demands good science and we have an obligation to provide it.”
Today, 14 years later, the DOJ is burying its head in the sand. Science is out of favor in the Trump Administration and we are all in peril as a result.
-- Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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