Skip to content

A New Look at Forensics

CAMERON TODD Willingham was convicted and put to death in Texas after arson investigators testified that the fire that led to the deaths of his three children was deliberately set. This year, a national arson expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that the original investigators did not use the scientific method in investigating the Willingham fire, which would have entailed the testing of hypotheses on how the fire started. Instead, the investigators took potential arson indicators that were present at the fire scene and interpreted them in an unscientific way.

For example, one investigator testified that burn patterns in the children’s room indicated that the fire was started by an accelerant and that because of that, the fire was burning hotter at the floor than at the ceiling, but he provided no scientific explanation why. In fact, the new report likened that investigator’s mind-set to that of a mystic.

The case illustrates how criminal convictions, which juries and judges thought were based on solid facts, may have been based on faulty forensic evidence. That’s why, critics say, the science behind the analysis of such evidence needs more scrutiny. A National Research Council (NRC) report on the topic was released earlier this year by the National Academy of Science (NAS).

The report found that the only proven forensic science is DNA analysis, which has helped to exonerate more than 240 convicted individuals to date, according to the Innocence Project. The NRC report stated that none of the other forensic methods—such as attempts to determine identity from analysis of fingerprints—has been rigorously “shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

One of the problems cited by the report is the lack of standards. Each U.S. state has its own definitions of what forensic science consists of, the Innocence Project’s Peter Neufeld told a congressional committee examining the issue. Further, certifications are generally not required for persons or labs doing work in most of the forensic sciences, which in addition to fingerprinting, includes hair analysis and arson study. Moreover, labs are underfunded and understaffed, with little oversight, according to NRC.

The report made several recommendations for improving the forensic field. These recommendations, which have been endorsed by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), include the need for scientific research to determine the limitations on certain forensic methods and the risk of human error in applying the method as well as the need for court testimony to be grounded in science.

Additionally, the report recommends mandatory certification and accreditation for crime labs and the establishment of a National Institute of Forensic Science that will provide an independent body of leadership for the forensic sciences. The report also stresses the importance of making sure that crime labs are independent and not under the control of law enforcement.

AAFS President Thomas Bohan told Security Management that separating the labs from law enforcement is particularly important: “[Labs] should be looking to both the defense and the prosecution with equal eyes…. a lot of the crime labs and even some that aren’t under police control, will talk about the defense as the enemy. That is just unacceptable.”

County and prosecuting attorney for Sheridan County, Wyoming, Matthew Redle, who represented the board of directors for the National District Attorneys Association at the hearing, said that moving labs outside of law enforcement’s purview would not prevent working relationships from developing between law enforcement and lab researchers. Therefore, he stated, funds would be better spent on training, equipment, and forensic facilities.

Bohan says that increasing the research into the effectiveness of forensic techniques is the most important step. Otherwise, he asks: “What good does it do to have standards? What good does it do to have certification and accreditation, if the techniques you’re using are wrong?”

In light of concerns about forensic science used in criminal cases, the Obama Administration’s National Science and Technology Council recently established a subcommittee on forensic science. The goal of that subcommittee is to assess the practical challenges of implementing the NAS report recommendations and to advise the White House on how to achieve the goals outlined in the report.