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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.

Thomas Claburn

February 18, 2009

3 Min Read

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. That lack of uniform standards means that convictions (or exonerations) based on the interpretation of forensic data may be wrong. "The number of exonerations resulting from the analysis of DNA has grown across the country in recent years, uncovering a disturbing number of wrongful convictions -- some for capital crimes -- and exposing serious limitations in some of the forensic science approaches commonly used in the United States," the report states.

It cites figures provided by The Innocence Project that indicate that 223 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 and November 2008.

The report cites numerous other incidents in which ballistic evidence and fingerprint evidence have proven to be inaccurate. For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

The FBI's explanation: "Upon review it was determined that the FBI identification was based on an image of substandard quality, which was particularly problematic because of the remarkable number of points of similarity between Mr. Mayfield's prints and the print details in the images submitted to the FBI."

As with other areas of forensic science, the report observes that digital evidence examiners have no agreed-upon certification program or list of qualifications, that some agencies treat digital evidence gathering as an investigative rather than forensic activity, and that experience and education in the digital forensics varies widely.

The report also takes issue with what it terms "The CSI Effect," a reference the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs. It blames Hollywood's depiction of forensic science for suggesting "that convictions are quick and no mistakes are made."

Shows that portray forensic science thus have real-life consequences on jurors' willingness to accept forensic evidence during a trial, the report says.


How hard is it to wade through all that evidence? InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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