Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Improving forensic science

National Academy of Sciences calls for standardized handling of crime evidence

One of the cornerstones of a sound criminal justice system is the ability of a crime lab to accurately process the evidence used against a defendant. Properly analyzed fingerprints, blood samples, bite marks and other evidence help make cases against defendants stand up.

But a draft National Academy of Sciences report expected to be released this month concludes that crime labs often use shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized. The academy, whose members and associates include nearly 200 Nobel laureates, is one of the world’s leading scientific organizations.

The New York Times reported Thursday that people who have seen the report say it concludes that crime evidence is often analyzed by poorly trained technicians who exaggerate the accuracy of their practices in court. The report, which Congress initiated in 2005, recommends that a federal agency be created to guarantee the independence of forensics examinations, a field now dominated by law enforcement agencies.

The advantage of standardized forensic examinations is that they could reduce wrongful arrests and convictions. The Times cited the case of Muslim convert Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., who was wrongly arrested in connection with a 2004 train bombing in Spain that killed 191 people. Mayfield won a $2 million settlement from the federal government after Spanish authorities convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty.

Considering the range of disciplines involved in forensic science — biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology and medicine among them — the argument for standardization is not a tough one to make. Deficiencies in any of those areas could have a detrimental effect on the analysis of a piece of evidence.

Though the report is not binding, its recommendations merit serious consideration by Congress. If that means tougher regulation of crime labs, so be it. The more solid the evidence, the better our system of criminal justice operates.

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