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Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul

Digital evidence examiners have no agreed-upon certification program or list of qualifications, in addition to other issues, a report to Congress points out.

The forensic science system -- digital or otherwise -- in the United States is badly fragmented and needs a major overhaul, a congressionally mandated report said Wednesday.

The National Research Council report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," was started in 2007 when Congress authorized an independent committee to study forensic practices in the United States.

The report finds that the forensic science system, upon which criminal and civil litigation depends, lacks adequate resources, talent, standards, and governance.

"The forensic science system in the United States has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community," said committee co-chair Harry T. Edwards, senior circuit judge and chief judge emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a Webcast press conference.

The report urges Congress to authorize and fund a new federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, or NIFS, to oversee how forensic science is practiced in the United States. It also makes 12 other recommendations to strengthen the standards and practices of forensic science.

Forensic science goes beyond DNA analysis. It includes toxicology, projectile marks and tool marks, document analysis, controlled substance analysis, fire investigation analysis, trace evidence, impression analysis, blood pattern analysis, crime-scene investigation methods, "medicolegal" death investigation, and digital evidence.

Yet it's only DNA analysis that stands firmly grounded in science when it comes to linking individuals to evidence. "[N]o forensic method other than nuclear DNA analysis has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently and with a high degree of certainty support conclusions about 'individualization' (more commonly known as 'matching' of an unknown item of evidence to a specific known source)," the report states.

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