Thune Forensics Hearing Opening Statement

June 26, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered the following prepared remarks at today’s “From the Lab Bench to the Courtroom: Advancing the Science and Standards of Forensics” hearing:

  Thank you, Chairman Rockefeller, for holding this hearing to examine the state of forensic science and related standards and the challenges facing the forensic science community.

  Popular television shows like CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order, to name a few, have showcased the role that forensic science can play in helping law enforcement carry out investigations and convict criminals.

  However, these shows can also create the misimpression that all courtroom evidence that is presented as scientific evidence has been subjected to high-tech, foolproof analysis, and that every state and local crime lab around the country has easy access to these sophisticated lab technologies. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

  A National Academies Report issued four years ago raised serious concerns about the state of forensic science and, among other things, called for structural reforms and new research. While the forensic science community did not embrace all of the Report’s reform recommendations, there seems to be general agreement that law enforcement, prosecutors, and crime labs would benefit from greater research and training efforts to increase crime lab capacity and accuracy, and to strengthen the scientific foundations of forensic science. For instance, advances in forensic DNA analysis have improved the strength of evidence that can put criminals behind bars and also clear the innocent. 

  However, as we explore ways to improve forensic science, we must be careful not to undermine or threaten the ability of local prosecutors and other law enforcement professionals to prosecute cases by fostering unrealistic expectations that every case can be solved through science. We must also avoid unintentionally and undeservedly casting doubt on the good work that the vast majority of practitioners perform. Federal efforts to improve forensic science should utilize input from, and be cognizant of the needs of, state and local practitioners in both the forensic and law enforcement fields.

  I would like to hear today about the extent of involvement of state and local practitioners in the National Commission on Forensic Science, recently established by the Administration. Along those same lines, I would like to hear the witnesses’ views about how to best leverage existing federal efforts and longstanding partnerships with state and local forensic scientists to improve forensic sciences.  I also look forward to hearing your thoughts about what the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) under this Committee’s jurisdiction could do to advance forensic science standards, and how the Department of Justice and NIST could best work together to enhance both public safety and confidence in our system of justice. 

  I look forward to hearing the testimony of our witnesses today. I would also like to thank all the witnesses for being here, some of whom have flown in from across the country and even from abroad.