Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Coverdell Grant Program for forensic science

The Innocence Project in New York recently released a report titled, "Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Government Can Strengthen Oversight through the Coverdell Grant Program." From the executive summary:

In 2004, Congress established an oversight mechanism within the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, which provides federal funds to help improve the quality and efficiency of state and local crime labs and other forensic facilities.

[...] Nearly five years after Congress passed legislation to help ensure that forensic negligence or misconduct is properly investigated, extensive independent reviews show that the law is largely being ignored and, as a result, serious problems in crime labs and other forensic facilities have not been remedied. In short, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), which is responsible for the program, has failed to make sure that even the law’s most basic requirements are followed.
Yesterday, the blog for TheHill.com paraphrased some of the results of this study, and reiterated the Innocence Project's call for increased oversight or, rather, they called for the Obama administration to increasingly take advantage of the grant program that Congress created five years ago. One particularly egregious fact they quote is this: only 13% of designated oversight entities meet the federal law’s forensic oversight requirements. If you were a defendant, would you want to take a 1-in-8 chance that the forensic lab that processed the evidence in your trial was subject to proper oversight?

Finally, "Under new leadership, the Department of Justice can – and should – make sure crime lab problems are properly addressed, which will enhance the public safety and help prevent wrongful convictions." Remember, working to correct problems in order to preclude wrongful convictions is cheaper than housing wrongfully incarcerated individuals.

No sooner had The Hill run this post than Grits for Breakfast published some presentations from the public meetings held by the National Academy of Sciences, meetings held to address the problems plaguing forensic science labs around the country. They link to this presentation in particular that calls for forensic tests "to be as blind as possible, for as long as possible," and which contains the shocking graphic on common error rates linked above.

You'll notice that firearms and fingerprints, while among the most reliable forensic testing methods, still yield erroneous conclusions around 1-5% of the time. Some toolmark and bitemark tests, meanwhile, are reliable less than half of the time. That report also refers to several studies that found that, for example, when a scientist was provided with "context" for certain samples – context such as, "The suspect has already confessed, here's his hair and a hair from the crime scene" – that error rates were much higher. Those who conducted the psychological studies could induce false positives by giving false context, leading the forensic scientist to believe certain conclusions before they came to them independently.

All of these scientific studies point to the sad state of the crime labs in this country. Scientists might think so, but they are not immune to psychological tendencies – such as suggestibility – that afflict every human being. Independent oversight and common-sense reforms are the necessary solution to the problem.

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