today, we criticize Obama's record on forensic science.

janklow Members, Moderators Posts: 8,613 Regulator
WARNING: long-ass pieces at these links

When Obama wouldn’t fight for science
In September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a scathing report on the use of forensic analysis and expertise in the criminal-justice system. The report, “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods,” looked at pattern matching forensic disciplines such as bite mark matching, shoe print matching, blood spatter analysis, fingerprint matching and hair fiber analysis. It also looked at DNA testing when investigators find biological material from multiple sources, a scenario that can bring human subjectivity into the testing. With the exception of single-source DNA testing, the report found serious deficiencies in all areas of forensics it studied.

The PCAST report was damning, but if you’ve been following these issues with any regularity, it wasn’t at all surprising. That was in September. It’s now January. And not only has the Obama administration done nothing about the report, the Justice Department has publicly denounced it. That report, along with others and an administration that seemed unusually equipped to take it seriously, presented a small window in which to reform a system. That window is about slam shut. And we’re about to be governed by a new administration that seems likely to board it up, wallpaper it and overlay it with brick. This wasn’t just a missed opportunity; it was a catastrophe. And it’s difficult to overstate the consequences.

...The aim of the PCAST report, as well as the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and the National Institute of Standards and Technology working groups, was to bring science to forensics — or rather to see if there’s any science behind the claims of forensic analysts. The 19 PCAST members are all scientists. While some legal experts did provide some guidance, the evaluation itself was done by some of the most eminent scientists in the country. These weren’t defense attorneys or social justice activists.

What PCAST, NIST and the NAS have found, overwhelmingly, is that all pattern matching fields of forensics lack any scientific support for their basic assumptions. The Obama administration seemed to understand these problems like no administration to date. Obama himself along with former attorney general Eric Holder have openly acknowledged that the criminal-justice system is flawed and in need of reform. In July 2015, Jo Handelsman, the assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for the eradication of bite mark evidence in court. It’s the Obama administration that oversaw the creation of the NIST working groups to study the validity and reliability of various forensic disciplines. And it was obviously Obama’s own PCAST that produced the paper last year in the first place. The White House even put out a news release touting the report.

And yet when the PCAST study came out, Attorney General Loretta Lynch immediately dismissed it, stating that while “we appreciate their contribution to the field of scientific inquiry, the department will not be adopting the recommendations related to the admissibility of forensic science evidence.” Lynch joined the National District Attorneys Association and various police organizations in casting the study as no big deal.

There are a number of reasons why it is in fact a big deal. First there’s the FBI, which Lynch oversees. Obviously, if the FBI crime lab isn’t going to make changes in the face of these reports, that’s going to affect the quality of the forensic evidence used in federal criminal cases. But the FBI crime lab also does forensics work for local police and prosecutors across the country, so those cases will also be affected. FBI crime lab analysts train state and local analysts, so the bad methods are passed on. The FBI crime lab is also generally seen as the preeminent crime lab in the country, so other crime labs emulate it. If the FBI isn’t going to change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, why should anyone else?

Then there’s the matter of the FBI’s own record. In her statement in September, Lynch argued that the FBI doesn’t need to abide by the PCAST recommendations because, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the Justice Department had taken unprecedented steps to strengthen forensic science, including investments in research, draft guidance to lab experts when they testify in court and ‘reviews of forensic testimony in closed cases.’”

But despite Lynch’s assertions, and despite its reputation, the FBI has a long and sordid record when it comes to dubious forensics dressed up as science.

...Over much of President Obama’s tenure, he has said some important and, in some cases, historic things about criminal-justice reform. He deserves credit for that. But too often those statements have been followed by policy changes that have been largely symbolic. It’s an issue upon which he hasn’t been willing to expend much political capital for substantive change. ... Here’s the haunting part: It’s unlikely that a technology as revolutionary as DNA testing will ever come along again. If we don’t fix the structural problems that DNA testing has exposed, not only will those problems continue to plague the other 90 percent of cases — without those occasional definitive wrongful convictions to grab us by the lapels — courts, politicians, and much of the public will over time be lulled into a new but just as false faith in the system. Without more DNA exonerations, we’ll come to believe that DNA fixed things. And without more DNA exonerations, it’s a false faith from which it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be jarred loose. The wrongful convictions will continue, but they’ll continue with an ever-shrinking possibility of ever being discovered. DNA testing wasn’t just a wake-up call. It was a one-time wake-up call. We ignore it at our peril.

And this is why Obama’s acquiescence to Lynch and the FBI is so maddening and utterly disappointing. This is an administration that claims to believe in science. The science here isn’t in dispute. It is clear and overwhelming. This is an administration that claims to care about justice. The injustices here aren’t in dispute. They are real and thoroughly documented. And they will almost certainly continue.


Prominent Democrats should be reprimanding Obama and Lynch for this. Democrats like to tout themselves as the party of science, usually with a dose of smug (and sometimes justified) condescension. Multiple federal reports authored by preeminent scientists have now emphatically stated for years that bad science is corrupting the justice system. Among real scientists, there’s little dispute about this. The first of these reports came out in 2009. Obama has had seven years to do something substantive about it. He hasn’t. The Democrats also like to tout themselves as the party of justice and equality. The people most affected by these problems are disproportionately poor and disproportionately black. And yet … nothing.

If Obama was just going to allow the DOJ to ignore the PCAST report all along, what was the point of commissioning it in the first place? Why call in the science if the science won’t change anything? The stakes couldn’t be higher here. And the demand is simple: If federal police and prosecutors should want to use expert testimony to put people in prison (or execute them), that testimony should be subjected to and governed by the basic rules of scientific inquiry.

If the Democrats can’t muster the political will for even that, they need to stop claiming to be the party of science.


  • janklow
    janklow Members, Moderators Posts: 8,613 Regulator
    Obama’s rhetoric on forensics is at odds with his record
    On Wednesday, I wrote about how President Obama had missed a huge opportunity by not forcing the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies to implement the forensics reform recommendations put forth by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

    Coincidentally, just this morning the Harvard Law Review published an article on criminal-justice reform authored by Obama himself. Forensics gets only five paragraphs of a very long piece. But it’s still worth examining. Obama touts what he claims to be a number of success within his administration toward advancing better and more science-driven forensics.

    My Administration has supported a wide range of research and policy initiatives to strengthen the forensic sciences, spanning disciplines from DNA analysis and fingerprints, to tire and tread marks, ballistics, handwriting, trace-evidence and toxicological analyses, and digital evidence. In 2013, DOJ and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established the first-ever National Commission on Forensic Science, a federal advisory committee to provide recommendations on how to strengthen the validity and reliability of the forensic sciences. In response to recommendations from the Commission, DOJ announced several actions it will take to improve its policies, including requiring the Department’s forensic labs to obtain and maintain accreditation and requiring all Department prosecutors to use accredited labs to process forensic evidence when practicable within the next five years.

    As I noted here at The Watch at the time, that phrase “when practicable” is significant. It gives federal prosecutors an out to use a non-accredited lab when an accredited one would be too much trouble. The loophole was criticized by several members of the NIST commission.


    All of these things are well and good. But as I pointed out Wednesday, Obama could create a dozen more blue ribbon commissions to study forensics and come up with another 10 dozen best practices recommendations. All of that means nothing if Obama won’t require the federal law enforcement agencies he oversees to actually implement those recommendations. And he hasn’t. Attorney General Loretta Lynch flatly dismissed the PCAST recommendations Obama takes credit for commissioning in the first place. And Obama did nothing to refute her. The reports from PCAST, NIST and the National Academy of Sciences all gave us a clearer, well-documented view of the crisis in forensics. That was important. But it’s all useless if none of it results in any substantive policy changes.


    It’s swell that the FBI finally conceded that its hair analysts have been tainting thousands of criminal cases for two decades. It’s swell that the FBI finally conceded the same thing about Compositional Bullet Lead Analysis. And “voiceprint” analysis. And that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives finally admitted that after who knows how many convictions, much of the arson “science” touted by its agents and taught to local fire investigators across the country was based largely on superstition and folklore. But so long as the DOJ continues to defer to the needs of prosecutors and law enforcement officials over the recommendations of scientists, there will be a parade of new junk science disciplines to replace the old ones. As a former president of the nation’s largest forensics organization once put it, “There is literally no end to the number of disciplines that become ‘forensic’ by definition. Nor is there an end in sight to the number of present or future specialties that may become forensic. The examples are many.”

    The difference is, these new disciplines won’t be utilized by prosecutors in cases where DNA is dispositive of guilt. With the DNA evidence, they won’t need to be. But that also means that we won’t have DNA testing to expose those disciplines as fraudulent.

    I’ll concede that I’m not familiar with the apparently new DOJ “Forensic Science Discipline Review” that Obama touts in his article. But given that Lynch flat-out rejected the recommendations in the PCAST report — a report authored by a team of well-regarded researchers from across the sciences, published by Obama’s own council of science and technology advisers — it’s hard to have much confidence that this new entity, whatever it is, will insist that DOJ only utilize forensic disciplines backed by scientific research. Or, if it does, that it will have the will or the authority to implement those policies across the Justice Department, even if federal prosecutors or U.S. attorneys object.

    Obama can tout the committees he formed and the reports he commissioned all he likes. When it came to using those reports to actually improve the criminal-justice system, his own attorney general rejected the notion out of hand. Obama then failed to correct her. As I wrote Wednesday, the window for reform here is small. Obama had the evidence to demand it. He’s a lame-duck president in an era where the public is as skeptical of the criminal-justice system as it’s been in generations. It was a golden opportunity. We just happened to have someone in the White House who, at least in his rhetoric, seemed to understand these issues as well as anyone we could really ever hope for — and at a time when the conditions for reform are as favorable as they’re ever likely to be. And yet Obama too eschewed the scientists and deferred to law enforcement. When it mattered, he dropped the ball. And that will be as much of his criminal-justice legacy as his commutations, his panels, his talk of justice and equality, or his law review articles.