Crime Labs in Disarray Nationally; Reform, Independence Needed, Report Says

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Problems including conflicts of interest and a lack of appropriate scientific standards require a wholesale overhaul of crime labs throughout the country, to be sure that the guilty are convicted in criminal cases and the innocent are not, a scientific think tank has recommended.

The report released today the the National Academy of Sciences follows a two-year study of the way forensic evidence being used in U.S. courtrooms is evaluated. Apart from DNA evidence, which is reliable when tests are correctly performed, much so-called scientific evidence has never been proven valid, the report says. Although its recommendations for change aren’t binding, they are almost certain to be influential, writes the Los Angeles Times.

Among them: Crime labs should be operated independently of law enforcement, and a national oversight agency should be created that gives scientists the job of setting appropriate evidentiary standards and certifying those who are qualified to render opinions. Additional funding also is needed, the report says.

Although the judicial system has attempted to provide a reliable framework for determining when forensic evidence should and should not be admitted, this is a task for which it is not well-suited, explains Senior Judge Harry Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a NAS press release. Edwards served as a co-chair of the committee that drafted the report.

“The partisan adversarial system used in the courts to determine the admissibility of forensic science evidence is often inadequate to the task,” Edwards says. “And because the judicial system embodies a case-by-case adjudicatory approach, the courts are not well-suited to address the systemic problems in many of the forensic science disciplines.”

Earlier ABAJournal.com coverage:

Draft Report Condemns Shoddy Practices at Many Crime Labs

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