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DOJ restarts work on validating suspect forensic techniques

In 2015, the FBI revealed the results of its review of hundreds of cases, dating back decades, in which members of its hair analysis unit had testified. In at least 90 percent of the cases, the FBI was forced to admit that its analysts had overstated the strength of evidence involving microscopic hair analysis. Unfortunately, hair analysis is not the only forensic science technique that has been challenged as either unscientific or less reliable than previously thought.

Handwriting analysis, bite-mark matching, certain ballistics tests and other common forms of forensic evidence have been found to be flawed. Prosecutors may have benefited from overstated expert testimony, but an untold number of defendants probably got convicted based on this misleading evidence.

Criminal defense attorneys and criminal justice reform activists were concerned when, in April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions disbanded the independent National Commission on Forensic Science before its work was complete. The panel of experts from a variety of criminal justice backgrounds was considering how to improve forensic evidence and how forensic science analysts should be trained to describe their techniques before judges and juries.

On Monday, a deputy attorney general announced the formation of a "forensic science working group" that will take over some functions of the commission. It will seek to set uniform standards on forensic testimony and create a monitoring system to ensure those standards are met.

"We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis -- or any reliable expert testimony -- simply because it is based on human judgment," he said in remarks to a private forensic science gathering.

In response to the 2015 revelations, last year the FBI issued draft standards on performing forensic tests and testifying about the results. The techniques covered included drug testing and chemical analysis, latent fingerprinting, body fluid testing and toxicology. They were meant to apply not only to the FBI but also to the DEA and ATF. However, the Trump Administration stopped work on those guidelines and it's not clear if such work will continue.

Is an internal working group as good as an independent panel?

The co-founder of the Innocence Project and a former member of the National Commission on Forensic Science commented that an internal Justice Department working group may be misguided. After all, it will likely be made up of federal prosecutors who rely on forensic evidence and the testimony of forensic analysts.

"What is most unfortunate is that they want to make the entire effort to improve forensic science an in-house working group, as opposed to an independent, transparent and science-driven, proactive entity," he told the Associated Press. "It misses the point that forensic science is not simply about public safety, it's about achieving justice."

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