Monday, May 11, 2015

A setback for forensic science

The top managers of the District’s highly regarded crime laboratory were forced to resign or terminated last month after a dispute between the crime lab and the U.S. Attorney’s Office over interpretation and reporting of DNA evidence. News reports suggested it was simply a matter of incompetence.

Outside experts hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a highly critical report. Their criticisms were supported by an audit performed on behalf of the mayor’s office by a national accrediting agency. The mayor and other city officials undoubtedly assumed that, if the lab could not figure out the right way to do DNA testing, the managers should be replaced. But that simple-minded analysis reflects a serious misunderstanding about the details of the matter and the larger issues at stake.

A key issue is whether the crime laboratory will remain independent from law enforcement. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that crime labs be separated from law enforcement control. The academy concluded that many of the problems that plague forensic science — inadequately validated methods, bias, overstatement of findings — are partly attributable to excessive influence by police and prosecutors, who rely heavily on forensic science evidence to obtain convictions.


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