Forensic Science Without the Science

The Trump administration’s war on science continues, and its latest move will cause more wrongful convictions. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced that he will dissolve the National Commission on Forensic Science, the non-partisan organization tasked improving the reliability and accuracy of scientific evidence used in criminal cases. Sessions seeks to keep forensic testing under the exclusive control of police and prosecutors, with its resulting inadequate checks on the accuracy and legitimacy of what passes for science. That is a recipe for more innocent people to be wrongfully convicted.

Unchecked scientific evidence used to convict people has tremendous flaws and can also be corrupted by local law enforcement. For instance, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI found that almost every single examiner in the FBI’s microscopic hair unit gave misleading, exaggerated, or otherwise flawed testimony in criminal cases between 1972 and 1999. Researchers looking back on convictions based on the hair “science” have concluded that the pseudoscience prompted FBI lab technicians to overstate forensic matches in ways that favored prosecution in more than 95% of the cases. That figure is truly staggering:  it includes 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom have been executed or died in prison.

In another example, just this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced that it will vacate more than 20,000 drug conviction cases due to a massive drug-testing scandal where the chemist was convicted of tampering with and fabricating drug tests in criminal cases. And in one of the more famous junk-forensic cases, Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed for arson in the fire that killed his children. Firefighters acting as amateur forensic “experts” helped convince the jury that the fire was intentionally set, but real scientists debunked that sham evidence (albeit too late).

The lawyers at Loevy & Loevy have seen all kinds of junk science leading to wrongful convictions: accidental fires resulting in false arson convictions based on outdated and disproven “scientific” theories about how fires burn; murder convictions based on fictional bite-mark “scientific” analysis; an invented theory that dogs can sniff out the murderer from a stale crime scene; etc. This is why we need a commission focused on improving the accuracy, reliability, and scientific soundness of forensic evidence.

The National Commission on Forensic Science is comprised of a mixed group of people who are well equipped to monitor and improve the uses of scientific evidence. It’s made up of federal, state and local forensic science service providers; research scientists and academics; law enforcement officials; prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. Together, they work to develop strategies for strengthening the validity and reliability of the forensic sciences, enhancing quality control in forensic science labs, and developing consistent protocols to try to reduce errors.

But in Trump-like fashion, Sessions has spurned any effort to ensure truth and science. He claims to be dismantling the Commission in order to “advance forensic science and help combat the rise in violent crime.” Somehow, according to Sessions, doing away with the Commission will magically “improve the reliability of forensic analysis, and permit reporting of forensic results with greater specificity.” Huh? In what world does removing the oversight improve reliability and accuracy?

Sessions seems hell bent on moving to block and roll back all efforts at criminal justice reform. By removing the scientific community oversight from forensic sciences, he is once again furthering that goal. This blind, get-tough approach to what is, in actuality, a decreasing crime rate nationwide will only lead to more injustice, aimed primarily at poor and minority members of our communities.


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