Commentary
Published: Mar 17, 2009
US Congress Investigates Forensic Science Requirements
by Jim Kouri


The US Congress' Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation on Tuesday heard from a panel of forensic expert witnesses that some issues dealing with the validity of forensic science need better review procedures and more rigorous standards.
 
The hearing focused on a recent report released by the National Academy of Sciences regarding the status of US crime labs, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.  The study found that, with the exception of DNA analysis, most forensic disciplines are in need of further scientific evaluation to determine their reliability and accuracy.
 
"Forensic science is a key factor in the fundamental functioning of our justice system," said Subcommittee Ranking Member Adrian Smith (R-NE).  "While many forensic disciplines are in need of more rigorous review to validate their accuracy and reliability and we should work to address this need, I think it is important to recognize the enormous value forensic evidence provides to the justice system.  We must exercise caution to ensure we are not overly dismissive of forensic evidence."
 
Mr. Peter Marone, Director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science and a representative of the NAS committee that authored the report, testified at Tuesday's hearing, recommending a unified plan for the forensic science enterprise with an aggressive, long-term agenda. 
 
He said that "some of the forensic science disciplines need further research to provide what scientific community commonly uses as the proper underlying validation for some of the methods in common use and to provide the basis for more precise statements about their reliability and precision." 
 
However, Marone also noted that "Because a method has not been sufficiently validated does not make it invalid."
 
While the NAS study recommended the creation of a new agency to provide oversight over forensic science, subcommittee members and witnesses at the hearing discussed the advantages and disadvantages of creating a new agency versus expanding efforts within other agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  Significant consideration was given to how the federal government could best build upon existing activities to advance scientific validation of forensic disciplines. 
 
One of the witnesses, Ms. Carol Henderson, Director of the National Clearing House for Science, Technology and the Law, testified that as an immediate step, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is "well-suited to the task" given its record of contributions to forensic science and its "well-deserved reputation for independence – a recurring concern of the NAS panel."
 
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and a staff writer for the New Media Alliance



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