Friday, February 20, 2009

Reactions to the NAS Report: Roundup

We blogged earlier about the National Academy of Sciences report eviscerating the nation's forensic laboratories and the way scientific testimony is used and abused at trial. The report has received a good deal of attention in the papers, even Scientific American chimes in. This is a good sign; the national press is giving the report the attention it deserves.

The Innocence Project in New York has been doing a good job of cataloguing all of the press. Here are some of the best snippets.

Grits for Breakfast excerpts this, which is a good summary of the conclusions and highlights:

Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization -- in other words, to "match" a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.

...there has been little rigorous research to investigate how accurately and reliably many forensic science disciplines can do what they purport to be able to do. In terms of a scientific basis, the disciplines based on biological or chemical analysis, such as toxicology and fiber analysis, generally hold an edge over fields based on subjective interpretation by experts, such as fingerprint and toolmark analysis. And there are variations within the latter group; for example, there is more available research and protocols for fingerprint analysis than for bitemarks.

Nuclear DNA analysis enjoys a pre-eminent position not only because the chances of a false positive are minuscule, but also because the likelihood of such errors is quantifiable, the report notes. Studies have been conducted on the amount of genetic variation among individuals, so an examiner can state in numerical terms the chances that a declared match is wrong. In contrast, for many other forensic disciplines -- such as fingerprint and toolmark analysis -- no studies have been conducted of large populations to determine how many sources might share the same or similar features. For every forensic science method, results should indicate the level of uncertainty in the measurements made, and studies should be conducted that enable these values to be estimated, the report says. [emphasis mine]
And here's Simple Justice, with a good – although cynical – take on the report and its possible impact on society.
So the cat is out of the bag. Decades of reliance on forensics are now in doubt. But this isn't the first time, and won't be the last. As scientific knowledge and tools developed, we kept getting the "new improved" version of whatever tools existed to prove facts. Of course, if a scientific tool was so reliable that it could put a man in prison for life, what did it say when a new tool came along that was that much more reliable? Courts embraced the new tool, confident that it was the latest and greatest in scientific proof, and lost no sleep over the demise of yesterday's absolutely certain scientific method. No one got hot and bothered by the conundrum.

So the NAS rips existing forensic practice to shreds and offers a roadmap to correcting junk science going forward. In a rational world, somebody would ask, "What do we do with all those people who have been convicted on science that we now know to be so flawed as to be unreliable, or at best cannot be sufficiently certain is reliable to admit as evidence in court?" By somebody, I mean a judge.

The answer is that the prison doors will not be thrown open, with tens of thousand, hundreds of thousand, told that they are free to leave.
I think GenPop also has a good "So what?" that fits well with my general belief about the holism of common prosecutorial tactics. Courtney says that the report's conclusions,
combined with the fact that eyewitness statements are often faulty, and jailhouse snitches are just doing it for the sentencing break, pretty much leaves us with DNA testing. And yet, people are continually convicted based on these types of fallible evidence. We are going to be setting free innocent people until the end of time, it seems.
We can hope President Obama takes the report's recommendations to hear, including creating a National Institute for Forensic Science.

1 comment:

OliveRose said...

I think that America is watching too much CSI, they believe that this is "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth"...