Agency needed to oversee cases

Published 10:58 pm Thursday, July 2, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that criminal defendants are entitled to cross-examine lab workers who conduct the forensic tests that are used in their trials.

The 5-4 decision hinged in part on how reliable — or not — those tests are.

As it turns out, and as mentioned by the court, much of the science used to convict people of crimes is not as reliable as judges and juries believe. A study released this year by the National Academy of Sciences found techniques involving ballistics, bite marks and even fingerprints haven’t been subjected to the scientific rigors to ensure they can really tie a certain individual or weapon to a crime.

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In fact, the only truly tested method — DNA — has often highlighted the failings of the other forensic techniques. Many of those who were later cleared by DNA testing were convicted based on less-reliable science. Faulty forensics represent the second-biggest cause of wrongful convictions exposed because of DNA.

Partly because of questions about reliability, the court said the accused should be able to challenge the scientific evidence against them and, specifically, to cross-examine those involved in the forensic analysis about their methods and conclusions. “Confrontation is one means of assuring accurate forensic analysis,” the court wrote.

The opinion was a classic strange-bedfellows scenario.

But in our view, cross-examining forensic scientists is only a partial answer to the problem.

Congress needs to follow the advice of the National Academy of Sciences report — specifically, to create an agency that can evaluate and improve these scientific techniques in criminal cases, set standards for their use and provide better oversight for practitioners and labs. —The Birmingham News