Forensic Investigation – Is It Time for Reform?

In February 2013, the federal government announced the launch of the National Commission on Forensic Science. The new commission’s purpose will be to draft proposals for the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney general concerning regulations that should address some of the flaws in our current forensic investigation techniques. The commission comes on the heels of a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in which it detailed the many flaws in our forensic investigation techniques.


Forensic Investigation Deeply Flawed, According to NAS

In its 2009 report, the National Academy of Sciences found that the forensic investigation techniques are not as accurate as we have believed. For example, fingerprint analysis has a one to four percent margin of error. Paint, body fluid and fiber analysis could produce false results as often as 10 percent of the time. Forensic investigation techniques that we have long taken for granted as scientifically sound, like blood splatter analysis, weapon tool mark or shoe print analysis, are anything but, the report shows.

Part of the problem is that most of the forensic investigation techniques we use to solve crimes have never been proven to be accurate by sound scientific testing, or are not based in scientific methodologies. In fact, only molecular DNA analysis has been scientifically validated by rigorous testing.

There’s also a lot of room for a forensic scientist’s personal bias to influence his or her findings. Forensic investigators often work closely with police officers and detectives, and may even be officers themselves; they’re exposed to information about suspects and cases and that information makes them biased. According to one British study, fingerprint analysis errors doubled when the analysts were given information about the case.

Reforms Are Needed

The NAS report calls for extensive reforms to the institution of forensic investigation. The new commission, which consists of 30 members including forensic scientists, defense attorneys and prosecutors, judges, researchers and officials from both the Justice Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), will meet several times a year to establish across-the-board standards for the practice of forensic science. One of the most significant could be the establishment of NIST-administered oversight teams.

If the NAS gets its way, forensic scientists, lab technicians, medical examiners and pathologists will soon need to obtain mandatory certification in their respective fields. Crime labs will also need to obtain mandatory accreditation. The forensic investigation methods we currently use will be put through extensive scientific tests to determine their accuracy, and new methods of investigation may need to be developed. Standardized methods of investigation and analysis will be developed and implemented.

Perhaps most significantly — and most controversially — the report calls for the establishment of independent crime labs that are not associated with law enforcement agencies. The NAS feels that divorcing crime labs from law enforcement agencies allows for the enforcement of regulatory standards, and can prevent the bias that may occur when analysts have access to details of the criminal cases associated with the evidence they’re examining.

While opponents of this idea believe that it’s possible to eliminate bias without cutting forensic investigators off from the law enforcement agencies they serve, many feel that the current system creates too much secrecy between law enforcement agencies and their crime labs. Separating crime labs and law enforcement agencies will lead to greater transparency in forensic analysis.

The Future of Forensics Investigation

If you are one of the many who are poised to start a degree in forensic science online, you will be studying a field on the cusp of change. These anticipated reforms are expected to have a positive impact on the practice of forensic science overall. With scientifically proven investigation techniques, mandatory accreditation, standardized practices and protection against bias, criminal investigations are expected to become much more reliable and accurate. The rate of wrongful convictions is expected to decrease, and many more wrongful convictions could be overturned in the near future – that’s good news for many.

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences has called for sweeping reforms in the field of forensic investigation. These reforms will make forensic investigations far more accurate and reduce the number of wrongful convictions that occur due to the inherent flaws in current criminal investigation techniques.


About the Author: Contributing blogger Erik O’Neal is a forensic psychologist.


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