When it comes to evidence in court, there’s nothing is better than DNA. Or is there? False testimony can be based on faulty science, and can lead to wrongful convictions. Are all crime labs the same? What standards do we hold them to? How are the people who work in the crime lab trained?
In 2009, The National Academy of Sciences published a report entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, A Path Forward.” This report forms the combined views and recommendations of the US Committee on Science, Technology and Law, a think tank of experts and professionals from all areas of US forensic science, based on a Congress-assigned task to unify forensic practices and more effectively serve US society.
I should point out here that I am a UK-based forensic biologist, previous employee of the UK’s flagship forensic science organization, The Forensic Science Service (recently closed by the UK government) and now operate on a freelance basis. From my perspective, the equivalent task would be to summarize UK forensic practice, fragmented as that may currently seem, then to explore the differences in standards, method and jurisdiction between our small nation and those of 49 others, such is the vastness of the US.
Since working freelance, the questions of standards, quality and competence have never been more relevant. How can I demonstrate that the expert opinions offered by my small organization comprising a single expert, measure up to those offered by the remaining UK forensic providers or the global forensic community?
I have recently been teaching this very subject to a group of forensic science graduates at a UK university, explaining the concept of quality in forensic science, how it can be achieved, and why it is so very vital. Student feedback suggested that my month-long course may not have been of sufficient duration to fully explain the requirements of this complex subject across all forensic disciplines. As such, it should be no surprise that the US report describes a vast undertaking.
In late 2006, The National Academy of Sciences convened a diverse forensic science committee to identify the needs of the US forensic science community. This committee met eight times over two years to discuss every forensic evidence type, method, technology, infrastructure, training and education, budgetary priorities, accreditation, and the use of scientific opinion in criminal litigation.
- By all accounts, the US system is a disparate arrangement of crime labs operating within federal, state and local jurisdictions for various agencies.
- According to the findings of the report, most jurisdictions do not require crime lab accreditation.
In considering the need for accreditation, one must first consider the impact of scientific evidence in criminal proceedings. In some cases, inaccurate scientific testimony, based on faulty science, has undoubtedly led to wrongful convictions.