Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward

Ten years ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. This landmark report stimulated a national discussion about the need to reform forensic science; fostered a re-evaluation of how forensic evidence is reported in court; prompted increased funding for forensic science research; inspired reforms in practice and procedure for forensic science professionals; and led to re-examinations of forensic techniques that are frequently used in criminal investigations.



Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States released



Melendez Diaz v. Massachusetts

"In this Supreme Court decision, as support for the right to cross-examine accusers, Justice Scalia cited the Academies’ report as indicating the problematic nature of much of forensic science testimony. After noting that forensic scientists working in laboratories administered by law enforcement agencies may be subject to improper pressure 'to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution,' Scalia referred to the report’s conclusion that 'the forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country.' The court thereby underscored the report’s assessment of the status forensic science evidence in determining that the right to cross-examination should be extended to forensic science experts as a mean of identifying deficiencies in training and judgment."
Joe S. Cecil, Fellow, Civil Justice Research Initiative, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

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The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Science (COS) charters the Subcommittee on Forensic Science



American Statistical Association (ASA) releases Policy Statement on Forensic Science Reform

ASA endorsed the Academies’ report and provided public comment on statistical issues regarding forensic science testimony. "The 2009 National Academies’ report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, identified many serious deficiencies in the nation's forensic science system and called for major reforms and new research. The report came after years of critiques of specific forensic science practices as well as calls for reform but especially broke new ground by offering a comprehensive review and adding the authority of the National Academies."

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State of Washington v. Fausto

In this case, the District Court of King County for the State of Washington issued a decision wherein it found that "the State must provide Defendants with a confidence interval for each Defendant’s breath-alcohol measurement. Absent this information, a defendant’s breath-alcohol measurement will be suppressed." As support for its decision, the court cited text from the Academies’ report: “Few forensic science methods have developed adequate measures of the accuracy of inferences made by forensic scientists. All results for every forensic science method should indicate uncertainty in the measurements that are made…” 

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Senator Patrick Leahy introduces Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2011 in the U.S. Senate



The U.S. Department of Justice announces launch of National Commission on Forensic Science

"The new initiative provides a framework for coordination across forensic disciplines under federal leadership, with state and local participation. The Department of Justice, through its involvement in the commission, will take an active role in developing policy recommendations and coordinating implementation. The NIST*-administered guidance groups will develop and propose discipline-specific practice guidance that will become publicly available and be considered for endorsement by the commission and the Attorney General. This coordinated effort will help to standardize national guidance for forensic science practitioners. Additionally, NIST will continue to develop methods for forensic measurements and validate select existing forensic science standards."

*National Institute of Standards and Technology

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The Innocence Project, The Innocence Network, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and pro bono partner Winston and Strawn, LLP announce a partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice to review approximately 3,000 cases in which microscopic hair analysis conducted by the FBI was used to inculpate the defendants.



Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson introduces Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2013 in the U.S. House of Representatives



Senator John D. Rockefeller IV introduces Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014 in the U.S. Senate



Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator John Cornyn introduce Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2014 in the U.S. Senate



The FBI reports that, in 268 cases where FBI analysts linked defendants to crimes through microscopic hair analysis, 96 percent (257 cases) involved statistically invalid testimony. 27 of 29 analysts either gave faulty testimony – claiming, for example, that evidence was a match to a particular source without statistical support for the claim – or submitted erroneous reports.


MAY 26

NIST establishes a 5-year, $20 million initiative for a Forensic Science Center of Excellence and awards funding to a consortium led by Iowa State University

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The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) releases the report Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods

"The study that led to the report was a response to the President’s question to his PCAST in 2015, as to whether there are additional steps on the scientific side, beyond those already taken by the Administration in the aftermath of a highly critical 2009 National Research Council report on the state of the forensic sciences, that could help ensure the validity of forensic evidence used in the Nation’s legal system."

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President Obama publishes commentary in Harvard Law Review, "The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform"

"Contrary to the perception on TV dramas, forensic science disciplines are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty and misinterpretation. [The Academies’ report] brought to light many of the challenges that the forensic sciences face in reliability and validity. Continuing advancements in DNA analysis and other forensic science disciplines will improve the reliability of forensic evidence and assure that justice is served, both in contributing to the convictions of perpetrators of crimes and in exonerating those falsely accused or wrongfully convicted."

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The charter of the National Commission on Forensic Science expires and the Commission is disbanded by the Department of Justice

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The committee that authored the Academies’ report receives the Champion of Justice Award from the Innocence Network


In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Isn’t this the point? We are not talking about good science merely for its own sake. We are talking about the need for good science in order to serve justice. And when justice is done, our society as a whole is better for it."

—Judge Harry T. Edwards, Academies’ Study Co-chair, Address to the National Commission on Forensic Science at Its Inaugural Meeting, February 3, 2014

The National Research Council report on forensic science created an opportunity for legal practitioners and courts on the framework of science and how to evaluate scientific evidence. Unlike the law, which relies on precedent, science is defined by change and evolves over time. The law seeks decisions "without a shadow of a doubt" and science pursues the measurement of uncertainty. In the decade since this report's release, the courts are starting to consider how it can accommodate these two opposing cultures and I'm proud to say in Michigan we have done that by adopting a court rule that allows for postjudgment motions for relief based on new scientific evidence. In the decade to come, I hope that the legal profession will continue to consider how it can apply forensic evidence in a way that preserves its accuracy and validity."

—Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Michigan Supreme Court

Research scientists who challenged foundational aspects of forensic science before the NAS report was published were often dismissed. The report not only provided a critical scientific consensus that supported our concerns, but it is advancing science to change lives. In my home state of Texas, it has led to the courts to abandon bite mark evidence and exonerate Steven Chaney who spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. His exoneration recalls the immortal words of Sam Cooke: ‘It's been a long, a long time coming But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.’"

—Dr. Clifford Speigelman, Distinguished Professor of Statistics and University Distinguished Professor, Texas A&M University, Statistics Advisor to the Texas Forensic Science Commission

Today, forensic science conversations begin with the NAS report. The report has gained an international audience and criminal justice and scientific stakeholders continue in their efforts to meet the bar set by its recommendations. The field of forensic science has experienced an evolution that would not have been possible without this scientific intervention. Innocent people have been freed from prison, the people who actually committed the crimes have been identified, and there is a growing recognition of the great responsibility that forensic science service providers have in conducting testing that meets the standards of the scientific community."

—The Innocence Project