Erin E. Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, is the author of “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic D.N.A.” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on the DOJ shutting down the National Commission of Forensic Science, here is an excerpt:
Prosecutors applauded the April 10 announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Department of Justice was disbanding the nonpartisan National Commission on Forensic Science and returning forensic science to law enforcement control. In the same statement, Mr. Sessions suspended the department’s review of closed cases for inaccurate or unsupported statements by forensic analysts, which regularly occur in fields as diverse as firearm and handwriting identification, and hair, fiber, shoe, bite mark and tire tread matching, and even fingerprinting analysis.
If all you knew about forensic science was what you saw on television, you might shrug off this news, believing that only the most sophisticated and well-researched scientific evidence is used to solve and prove crimes. But reality is different.
D.N.A.-exoneration cases have exposed deep flaws in the criminal justice system’s use of forensic science. Reforms have not come easy, but slow and plodding progress has been made. In 2005, the F.B.I. said that it would no longer conduct bullet-lead examinations after a review panel found matches essentially meaningless. A blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences raised the same concern in a 2009 report that found nearly every familiar staple of forensic science scientifically unsound.
Prompted in part by that report, the Justice Department initiated a review of thousands of cases involving microscopic matching of hair samples. In 2015, the F.B.I. announced its shocking initial findings: In 96 percent of cases, analysts gave erroneous testimony. At a meeting last spring of the commission that Mr. Sessions just disbanded, the department said it would expand the view to include a wider array of forensic disciplines.
With the announcement by Mr. Sessions, this momentum comes to a screeching halt. Although forensic science would seem a low priority for an incoming attorney general, it is not altogether surprising that it was in Mr. Sessions’s sights. As a senator (and former prosecutor), Mr. Sessions made forensic science a priority. He sponsored and shepherded to passage the Paul Coverdell National Forensic Science Improvement Act of 2000, which remains the signature federal funding mechanism for state all-purpose forensic labs. That might suggest that Mr. Sessions would care about the integrity of forensic science, but his enthusiasm has been for more — not better — forensic evidence. When the National Academy of Sciences’ scathing report was released, Senator Sessions simply waved it away, remarking, “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain” — ignoring the panel of experts who had concluded just that.
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