WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation announced today a full committee hearing on advancing the science of forensics. While the criminal justice system relies heavily on forensic science to identify and prosecute criminals, many forensic tests lack scientific validation. The hearing will examine the science of forensic disciplines, the need for scientific research and enforceable national standards, and other challenges faced by the forensic science community.
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Dr. Terry W. FengerDirector, Forensic Science CenterMarshall University
Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IVU.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Good afternoon. We are here today to investigate the science of forensics. The criminal justice system is intimately tied to the practice of forensic science. Attorneys, judges, and juries all rely on the forensic evidence presented in a courtroom to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. For many in the public, their understanding of forensic science comes from the world of entertainment. Popular television shows like “CSI” and “NCIS” give the impression that forensic science is nearly infallible, always conclusive, and very high tech; however, the reality is far from this depiction.
Today, we will learn about the state of science in forensic disciplines. We will see that some fields, like DNA analysis, use reliable methods and techniques rooted in scientific research. We will also see that there are other fields of forensics, such as ballistics, bite marks, and even fingerprinting, where the scientific foundation simply is not there, leaving the results of some analyses in doubt. A particularly telling misconception about the practice of forensic science concerns the availability of DNA. Only about ten percent of forensic casework includes DNA evidence. In the other ninety percent of cases, the criminal justice system relies on other types of analyses, including those that may not be scientifically sound.
At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the state of forensic science in the United States. The review committee included members from the legal, forensic, and scientific communities. What they found surprised me, and, as we will hear in today’s testimony, surprised some of them as well. The committee’s report highlighted many challenges facing the forensic science community. These problems were not with the forensic practitioners themselves, the majority of whom are dedicated, ethical professionals doing their best possible work. Rather, the problem involves the science itself. For example, forensic analysis is often used to try to establish a direct link between the evidence and a specific individual. With the exception of DNA analysis, no forensic method has been demonstrated with a high degree of certainty to be able to establish that link.
There are also no national standards for the language used in reporting outcomes and interpretation of forensic analysis. When an expert testifies in court that a fingerprint from a crime scene “is consistent with” the fingerprint of the defendant, what does that mean to you? It may or may not mean the same thing to that expert sitting on the witness stand.
Many disciplines in forensic science were “home grown” exclusively for law enforcement. While this is not inherently damaging, it has led to a symbiotic relationship between forensics and law enforcement. When crime labs are subject to funding and oversight through law enforcement, there is potential for conflicts of interest. It is critical that we separate the science from prosecutorial jurisdiction, to address both the perception and reality of bias in the analysis of evidence used at trial.
As for those working in crime labs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a twenty percent increase in the number of jobs for forensic science technicians by 2018. We will soon need more forensic scientists and we need them to be well-trained. Forensic science students need a strong background in the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a supply already taxed by the nation's urgent need to re-assert its global competiveness in other areas. It is both a lack of resources and expertise that makes educating a new generation of forensic scientists difficult.
Within my own state of West Virginia, we have seen firsthand the growth in the forensic science industry, with the presence of the FBI Criminal Justice Information System Division and the Department of Defense’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency. Their close collaborations are helping to make significant advances in biometrics technologies, and they will be working even closer—side-by-side, on a daily basis—once the new joint Biometrics Technology Center in this region is completed.
West Virginia is also home to two universities with highly ranked forensic science departments: West Virginia University and Marshall University. This combination of academic research, education facilities, and federal agency involvement will allow West Virginia to take a national leadership role in strengthening the field of forensic science.
This afternoon we will hear from a panel of witnesses on how we can advance the science of forensics and address the field’s most critical challenges. First off, we have Mr. John Grisham: a renowned author and former defense attorney. Mr. Grisham serves on the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project, and is Chairman of the Mississippi Innocence Project. Second, we have with us the Co-Chair of the National Academies’ Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community, Dr. Constantine Gatsonis. Dr. Gatsonis is a biostatistician at Brown University. Our third witness, Mr. Geoffrey Mearns, is the Provost at Cleveland State Univeristy. He’s a former prosecutor and was also a member of the National Academies’ Committee on Forensic Science.
Finally, we have Dr. Terry Fenger, Director of the Forensic Science Center at Marshall University in West Virginia. Marshall’s Master of Science degree program in forensic science is one of the few in the country to meet the rigorous standards required for accreditation by the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission. Marshall’s Forensic Science Center not only trains graduate students in forensic science research, but also trains law enforcement professionals in best practices and state of the art technologies in DNA analysis and computer forensics. Also, since 2005, they have trained 380 nurse examiners in assault cases to help them achieve certification in their discipline.
I’d like to thank you all for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. John GrishamAuthor; Board of Directors, Innocence ProjectChairman, Mississippi Innocence Project
Dr. Constantine A. GatsonisCo-chair, National Academies' Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science CommunityDirector, Center for Statistical Sciences, Brown University
Mr. Geoffrey S. MearnsMember, National Academies’ Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science CommunityProvost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Cleveland State University
Dr. Terry W. FengerDirector, Forensic Science CenterMarshall University