The announcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that he will end an independent panel set up to raise scientific standards in forensics, has provoked a backlash.
Sessions announced this month that he has suspended a Justice Department review of widespread flaws in FBI forensic expert court testimony.
The announcement comes on the back of a record number of exonerations in 2016. It has alarmed criminologists, defense lawyers, crime writers, and scientists.
Sessions announced that he would not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science – a partnership set up between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, on the eve of its expiry.
Sessions will instead appoint a senior forensic adviser and create an internal DOJ crime task force.
The move provoked an outcry. Six research scientists who sit on the panel called for its renewal based on the panel’s “positive and indelible impact on the criminal justice system.”
The work of the panel has led to the discrediting of a number of forensic techniques that became established in the criminal justice system
Indeed, it was set up to address growing concerns about some of these relied-on techniques.
Forensics, such as the use of bite mark evidence that were long considered reliable, were found to be flawed because of the commission’s work.
In 2014, USA Today reported on the exonerations of 25 people who were wrongly convicted through the use of bite mark evidence.
While the Obama administration distanced itself from bite mark evidence, the technique is still being used.
An article in Rolling Stone claimed Sessions is keeping ‘junk science’ in America’s courts.
The article said bite mark evidence is not scientifically valid. It also highlighted microscopic hair analysis as another area of forensics which is still used to convict defendants even though the evidence is widely discredited.
An investigation in 2015 found 26 out of 28 FBI analysts overstated the likelihoods of hair matches over two decades.
As of March 2015, the bureau found flawed testimony in 96 percent of the 268 cases it reviewed in which hair analysts were called to testify against defendants. In more than 30 of those cases, the defendant received the death penalty.
In light of the damning research, FBI Director James Comey recommended governors order reviews of cases in their states in which hair analysis was in a conviction. The FBI trained scores of examiners in its flawed techniques, and many of those examiners testified in state cases.
While DNA remains the bedrock of forensic science, some labs have been accused of flawed analysis and the police lab in Austin, Texas, was shuttered last year. The demise of the National Commission on Forensic Science appears to spell bad news for the administration of justice.