The Justice Department will begin work on two projects centered around improving forensic science practices amid nationwide concerns over certain kinds of forensic evidence presented in criminal trials.
On Monday at a private gathering of forensics professionals in Atlanta, Georgia, US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the DOJ will revive a project aimed at setting federal guidelines for what forensic scientists can say in court.
The department will be creating a “forensic science working group” focused on monitoring the accuracy of forensic testimony, due to more and more research showing that hair, handwriting analysis, bite-mark evidence and some ballistic tests found at crime scenes are scientifically flawed, according to a Department of Justice press release.
The working group will replace a commission created in 2013 under former President Barack Obama, called the National Commission on Forensic Science. The prior commission looked to improve the accuracy of forensic science and advise the attorney general on the handling of scientific evidence in the criminal justice process.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions discontinued the charter of the commission in April. The newly formed working group will be led by longtime Missouri prosecutor Ted Hunt, who was also part of the prior commission, the DOJ press release stated.
“It speaks strongly of the Attorney General’s commitment to the interdisciplinary nature of forensic science that he has appointed Mr. Hunt to serve in this position,” Rosenstein said. “I am directing him to coordinate closely with our federal, state, local, and tribal forensic science practitioners and to identify ways to best continue ongoing outreach to these stakeholders.”
The agency will also follow through with a broad look at the equipment and personnel needs of America’s overburdened crime laboratories, among other areas.
“We must use forensic analysis carefully, but we must continue to use it,” Rosenstein said, according to the Associated Press. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis — or any reliable expert testimony — simply because it is based on human judgment.”
The announcement comes after a discovery which highlighted that many experts working for the FBI had exaggerated the legitimacy of microscopic hair analysis in hundreds of cases that date back decades.
In 2015, a review of lab examiners’ testimonies from the DOJ uncovered that there were errors in at least 90 percent of the information they provided, covered in a period before 2000. The FBI claimed that it had improved its practices in the area since the late 1990’s by employing more reliable mitochondrial DNA hair analysis, including microscopic hair analysis.
However, following the discovery of more flawed forensics, last year, the department issued draft standards for reporting and examining forensic evidence in court. The standards were set to apply to Justice Department personnel and agencies such as the FBI, ATF and DEA, but the new administration of President Donald Trump stopped work on the standards so that Rosenstein could analyze the situation.
Co-founder of the Innocence Project and a former member of the national commission, Peter Neufeld, praised the recent idea to set guidelines for forensic testimony but also mentioned that keeping the working group within the DOJ is ill-advised.
“What is most unfortunate is that they want to make the entire effort to improve forensic science an in-house working group, as opposed to an independent, transparent and science-driven, proactive entity,” Neufeld said, the AP reported. “It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it’s about achieving justice.”
Rosenstein said that the working group will consider more than 250 comments and suggestions the department received in relation to the disbanding of the former commission.