Saturday, February 21, 2009

National Academy of Sciences Report on Forensic Science

I know this has been all over the legal blogsphere, but NAS has released a report on Forensic Science in the United States.

I read about it in many places and also heard about it on NPR on the radio. This is something that greatly interests me. I have not yet read the report. In fact, the report is over 250 pages long and you need to pay for it to download it.

What first struck me about the report was, "duh." After reading about that horrible medical examiner in Mississippi who has been basically telling prosecutors anything they want to hear to get convictions, I knew things were bad.

What amused me most about the report on NPR was that law enforcement/prosecutors seem to agree with most of the report, except for one rather key and important recommendation: The recommendation that forensic labs be completely independent of law enforcement. Oh, they HATED that idea. Of course, the reasons given for their hatred were something plausible, like how they like how they can get quick turnaround time when it is all "in-house" - which is oh so important when you are tracking hot leads that may quickly go cold.

But of course, the real reason I think they don't like the idea of an independent lab is that then they won't have people on the payroll and on their "team" who will be biased in their favor and who will also know who they are interested in and might skew results accordingly - intentionally or not. I mean, if turnaround time is the only issue, there is no reason an independent lab need not be quick, particularly for emergency situations. If you could demonstrate that an independent lab could be that quick, I'm sure law enforcement would come up with some other reason why they need their own labs.

Me, I think it is a travesty that the labs are not already independent. If I were supreme dictator, I'd make it the law that forensic labs had to be completely independent, and also must operate blindly. They'd get things in to test and have no idea where they came from. The lab techs would never know if they were testing evidence for a prosecutor, or for a criminal defendant, or for a civil plaintiff or civil defendant. And just to keep them honest, some of what they'd be testing would actually be dummy tests with known results marked as if they were real, to verify the lab is being accurate. Moreover, criminal defendants would have exactly the same access to the use of the lab as prosecutors. That would be fair and that would eliminate a lot of the bias and skewing in favor of prosecutors that happens now.

I'm sure this will happen - sometime after hell freezes over.

In an effort to dig further into this report, I actually paid to download it. I just started reading it, and once I'm done, I will post again about it.

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