A decade marked by critical reports, scandals, and a rising tally of exonerations have made it hard for even the most stubborn forensic experts to ignore the problem of junk science. But the ongoing crisis within forensic science remains woefully unresolved.
At the most recent meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the plenary speaker — veteran Kansas City, Missouri, prosecutor Ted Hunt, tapped by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to head up DOJ’s Forensic Science Working Group — embodied a spirt of skepticism and pushback.
Hunt was among those who served on the Obama-era National Commission on Forensic Science, where he clashed with his colleagues on a number of issues — including those designed specifically to improve the reliability of forensic science. “Ted Hunt,” one veteran conference attendee concluded, “is the Mike Pence of forensics.”
he blamed critics — undisguised jabs at the Innocence Project, outspoken individuals within the forensics community, and journalists — for the crisis of confidence within the field. “Much of it is … strategic, dishonest, and destructive. Some of it is little more than agenda-driven advocacy in the guise of promoting scientific purity — a genre I call ‘forensic science fiction,’” he said. Others promote “what I call ‘junk journalism’ — media stories full of partisan misinformation, strawman arguments, and half-truths about forensic science.”
While Hunt’s speech might’ve provided him a few satisfying zinger moments, it did little to reflect the sobering reality on the ground: Many forensic practices still lack meaningful scientific underpinning even though they are regularly used to prosecute individuals charged with crimes. The federal government has thrown what appears to be an impressive amount of money toward funding foundational research in forensics — more than $200 million since the NAS report was released — but that’s hardly enough to cover the amount of ground necessary. In 2014, as one conference presenter noted, the feds funded forensic research at roughly $21 million; that same year the Department of Defense spentmore than $41 million on Viagra. And there remain questions — and contention — over what should be researched and to what degree.
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