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National Research Council report calls for overhaul of forensic science system

Professors at Indiana University Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are among the authors of a congressionally mandated report that calls for major reforms and new research to fix deficiencies in the nation's "badly fragmented" forensic science system.

The National Research Council report, released last month, calls for the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts, establish and enforce standards for professionals and laboratories, and oversee education.

Forensic Science

Graduate student Elisa Liszewski examines a cotton fiber sample in the Forensic and Investigative Sciences laboratory at IUPUI.

Print-Quality Photo

The report was produced over two years by a 17-member committee of experts, including Karen Kafadar, Rudy Professor of Statistics and Physics at IU Bloomington; and Jay Siegel, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at IUPUI.

While the report pointed out shortcomings in the current system in sometimes strong language, Kafadar said the focus was on what to do to make the system better.

"I think there's a lot of potential for a path forward," she said.

The report says that, with the exception of nuclear DNA evidence, no forensic method has been able to connect evidence with a specific individual or source with a high degree of certainty. It says other methods -- such as fingerprints, ballistic tests and handwriting analysis -- have important roles in forensics, but studies haven't been done to establish their validity.

"In general, all of them are in need of further research," Kafadar said.

Furthermore, the U.S. has no consistent standards for who can claim to be an expert in forensic science. And while accreditation is available for forensics laboratories, it isn't required.

In addition to creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science, the report recommends:

  • Requiring forensic science professionals to be certified to standards set by the institute
  • Requiring forensics labs to be accredited and providing resources to strengthen the system
  • Making labs independent of law enforcement agencies
  • Promoting more research, including studies to establish the strengths and weaknesses of evidence methodologies and the potential for bias and human error

Another key recommendation, Siegel said, is that the National Institute of Forensic Science be an independent entity, not part of the Justice Department or any other federal agency.

Jay Siegel

Jay Siegel

Siegel said there may be a bit of hyperbole to the idea that the forensic science system is "broken," but the problems it faces are real.

"It's damaged, and there needs to be some real attention paid to it in a number of arenas. And that's what these recommendations are about," he said.

The report says problems in the system have come to a head with evolving case law on the admissibility of evidence. Interpreting a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that said evidence used in court should be scientifically valid, judges have issued conflicting rulings on when fingerprints, firearms tests and other forms of information may be admitted as evidence.

"The legal community has tried to deal with this," Kafadar said. "But they're not scientists. Nobody can build science into the system except scientists."

Siegel said professional ethics and an understanding of the proper role of forensic evidence is an important part of the curriculum at the IUPUI Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees for students who aim to work in the field.

"We try very hard to educate our students not only in science but in issues of process and policy that govern how forensic science is done and how it is presented the courtroom," he said. "That's where the rubber meets the road."

Kafadar said many well trained professionals are working in the field. Many have been involved with working groups that have pushed for standards, certification and accreditation, and advocated for professionalization of forensic scientists and medical examiners. But their efforts have had no national mandate, little funding and no strong, independent organization to lead the way.

"We believe there are the first elements of a proper Institute in place already," she said. "These people exist. We just need to find a way to pull them together."