Rockefeller Remarks on the Science and Standards of Forensics

March 28, 2012

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—I don’t often get the chance to say that a Commerce Committee hearing is about truth and justice.  But that’s exactly what this hearing is about today.  It’s about using more science in our criminal justice system.  And it’s about creating standards that judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and juries all can trust.    

This is the second hearing we’ve held on this subject.  In December, we heard from the bestselling author John Grisham and other experts about the challenges and needs of the forensic science community.  We heard that many disciplines in forensic science, like ballistics, bite marks, and even fingerprint analyses, are not based on peer-reviewed science.  And we heard that the forensic science community does not have the resources—or sometimes the desire—to conduct this type of research.

Most disturbingly, we heard that many forensic science disciplines lack what one of our witnesses called a “culture of science.”  Too often, their conclusions are subjective and lack scientific validation and standards.  Without properly analyzed evidence, it’s harder for law enforcement to apprehend and prosecute criminals.  And it’s more likely that our system will wrongfully convict innocent people.

What’s clear at this point is that we need more research and better standards in forensic science.  And to be credible, this work needs to be performed by scientific experts outside of the law enforcement culture.  

Today, we will talk with three leading scientists about the best ways to leverage the expertise of our federal science agencies to improve this process.  If our shared goal is to build a “culture of science” in the forensic science disciplines, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are the two federal agencies we will look to for guidance and expertise.  These two agencies will have to become a link between forensic science and the broader scientific research community.   

NIST’s work focuses on measurement science and standards for forensic science.  NIST scientists have decades of collaboration under their belts with the FBI to improve hardware and computer programs for fingerprint screening.

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (FBI CJIS) Division, based in West Virginia, houses the world’s largest biometrics database as part of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.  The FBI CJIS also hosts the Department of Defense’s biometrics database that is fully interoperable with the FBI’s database, and has a broader array of biometrics data, including fingerprints, iris, palm, facial, voice, and DNA.  

This kind of collaboration between our scientists and our criminal justice system will have to grow and deepen to put our evidence standards on a solid scientific footing.  Putting more “science” into forensic science is one of the Commerce Committee’s top priorities this year.  I’m working on legislation that I hope to introduce in April.  My questions today will focus on the best way to apply the federal government’s scientific knowledge and resources to this problem.  I look forward to your testimony.