Federal report finds deficiencies in use of forensics in criminal cases

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Prosecutors and law enforcement personnel will benefit from recommendations made in a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found serious deficiencies in the nation's use of forensic science in criminal cases, one of the report's authors said yesterday.

Those whose job it is to catch and prosecute criminals should embrace rather than criticize the Congressionally mandated NAS report issued in February that called into question the analysis of long-standing forensic evidence such as fingerprints, bite marks, tool marks and handwriting, among other methods, said Geoffrey S. Mearns, dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a member of the committee that worked more than two years on the report.

"This isn't a pro-defense report," Mr. Mearns said after speaking on a panel at "Does Forensics Need Fixing?" The one-day seminar was hosted by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University.

"Really, the thrust of the charge from Congress and the thrust of the report is these changes advance the interests of law enforcement and therefore the interest of the public because they make us safer.

"This isn't about letting defendants go on technicalities based on science, this is about making us safer."

The seminar drew about 100 lawyers, forensic scientists, judges, law professors and students for panel discussions on the NAS report "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward."

The report presented a no-holds-barred critique of the state of the nation's forensic sciences, noting that with the exception of DNA analysis, the examination of fingerprints, tool marks, bite marks, handwriting, hair samples and other forensic samples hasn't consistently shown with a high degree of certainty a connection between such evidence and a specific individual or source.

Mr. Mearns, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing case, said during his panel discussion that his views about forensic science began to change "when I came to realize there wasn't nearly enough genuine science in any of the so-called forensic sciences."

As an example, he said a fingerprint expert, when asked his error rate, said it was "zero," which Mr. Mearns said was impossible. For forensic disciplines that include subjective opinions like fingerprint analysis, he said, the true answer should be "I don't know," he said.

The NAS report said there are great disparities among existing forensic science operations in federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. It urges Congress to establish a new, independent National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts, establish and enforce certification standards for forensic science professionals and accreditation standards for laboratories, and oversee education standards.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this week held its first hearing on the matter, but Dr. Thomas L. Bohan, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, whose organization this month formally voted to support the NAS report recommendations, said before his panel yesterday that it could be five years minimum before an institute could be established. Still, he said, it's a great start.

"I say we're looking a little harder at evidence because we're looking for an increased degree of justice. A prosecutor's job is to determine if a guy is guilty, not in his own mind but from the facts. Trust in the criminal court system is what increases justice."

Additionally, the report said public forensic science laboratories should be made independent or autonomous from police departments and prosecutors' offices.

"The only question I have is 'What took so long?' " for forensics to be put under a microscope, said renowned forensic pathologist and the institute's namesake, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, who served on the panel with Mr. Mearns.

"The report is marvelous in calling for accreditation, certification, etcetera. These are things that are long, long overdue. There is so much that must be done in the field of forensic science.

"Keep in mind that really the bottom line here is expertise and true knowledge," Dr. Wecht said. "You need expertise, and you need honesty and you need a lack of bias and you need an understanding on the part of forensic scientists not to be intellectually arrogant."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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