Rockefeller Says Stronger Forensic Standards Necessary to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

June 26, 2013

JDR waving reportWASHINGTON, D.C. -- Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV today gave an opening statement at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing titled, "From the Lab Bench to the Courtroom: Advancing the Science and Standards of Forensics." Below are his prepared remarks.

Today’s hearing continues a discussion we started last Congress about improving the science used to catch criminals and solve crimes. But before we get to the ongoing challenges in forensic science, I’d like to start with an amazing success story. It’s called “DNA fingerprinting.” We’ve seen this incredible technology represented so many times on “CSI” and other crime shows that we take it for granted. But, we shouldn’t. It didn’t exist 30 years ago. Today, it is one of our judicial system’s most important tools for convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.   

DNA fingerprinting has grown so effective, and so precise that even a few cells collected from sweat, blood, or saliva can be enough to link a suspect to a crime. This powerful forensic technology didn’t develop by chance. It was the result of careful, thoughtful collaboration between the law enforcement and scientific communities. It was the result of a process in which technical experts developed objective measurements for determining whether DNA recovered at a crime scene precisely “matched” a suspect’s DNA.   

In a hearing held last year, this Committee heard testimony from a prominent molecular geneticist – Dr. Eric Lander – who, in 1989, served as an expert witness in one of the very first criminal trials to consider DNA evidence. Dr. Lander told us that during this trial, the scientific experts from the prosecution and the defense literally kicked the lawyers out of the room so they could discuss the quality and validity of the DNA evidence. It was discussions like these – led by independent experts – that eventually turned DNA matching into a scientific process rather than a matter of subjective professional opinion and made DNA fingerprinting the gold standard of forensic science it is today.  

Unfortunately, the techniques used in some forensic disciplines – such as ballistics, bite mark, and fingerprint analyses – have not been subjected to the rigorous scientific scrutiny that Dr. Lander and his colleagues applied to DNA matching. We now know that some of the forensic evidence presented in courtrooms proved unreliable and contributed to the wrongful conviction of innocent people.  

In 2005, Congress responded to this problem by asking the National Academy of Sciences to assemble a group of experts from the law enforcement and scientific communities to take a hard look at forensic science. Four years later, the Academy sent us a book-length report called “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Most of the people in this room are familiar with the findings of this report. They demand action. The report concluded that a number of the forensic techniques used in our country today were developed and practiced “with little foundation in scientific theory or analysis.”

The report called on Congress and the federal government to start building this missing scientific foundation. While we haven’t reacted to this challenge as quickly as I would have hoped, we are beginning to make some progress. President Obama’s 2014 budget requests funding to establish a new Forensic Science Advisory Committee, increases funding for NIST’s work in forensic science, and proposes to transfer funds from the Department of Justice to NIST and the National Science Foundation to further address this problem.

In the next few weeks, I will introduce an updated version of my bill submitted in the last Congress (S. 3378) directing our federal science agencies to increase forensic science research and standards development useful to the law enforcement community.  Promoting truth and justice in our judicial system is a bipartisan cause, and I invite all of my colleagues on this Committee to co-sponsor it.