COMMENTARY: "Jeff Sessions wants to keep forensics in the Dark Ages," by Radley Balko, published by The Washington Post on April 11, 2017. (Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.")
GIST: "When Jeff Sessions was a senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was part of hearings to address the National Academy of Sciences report on the use of forensics in America’s courtrooms. The NAS report had been commissioned by Congress after DNA testing had revealed not only that hundreds of people had been wrongly convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape, but also that about half those people had been convicted due in part to or because of forensic testimony that could only have been wrong. Sessions wasn’t buying it. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain and leaving prosecutors having to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial,” he said, rebutting the scientists who had come to precisely that conclusion in their report. The “scientific” and “proven” parts were precisely what the report found lacking in too many forensic disciplines. Sessions either didn’t read it — he has a record of criticizing reports without reading them — or simply dismissed it. When witnesses noted that there was no scientific research to support the field of handwriting analysis, Sessions remarked, “Well, I’ve seen them testify and I’ve seen blow-ups of the handwriting, and it’s pretty impressive.” Who are you going to believe, a team of scientists, or Jeff Sessions’s sense of wonder?.........For Sessions, the federal government’s only real responsibility in the area of forensics is to provide the resources and training necessary to help local cops and prosecutors put people in prison. Any oversight or quality control is meddling. The FBI’s own history shows why he’s wrong. Over the past several years we’ve learned that the agency — whose crime lab is considered one of the most prestigious in the world — faked an entire field of forensic science. Not once, but twice. But when law enforcement clashes with science, Sessions sides with law enforcement. And this really gets to the heart of the ongoing problem with forensics. Most fields of forensics were invented and developed by police agencies, not in scientific labs. In fact, for most of the 20th century, the scientific community largely steered clear of the criminal-justice system. Science and law are two entirely different fields. They’re driven by different goals, different processes, and different values. Science is the gradual accumulation of knowledge through trial, error and corroboration. The criminal-justice system tries to get at truth through an adversarial process, after which it prioritizes preserving jury verdicts. But prosecutors also learned early on that jurors like expertise, and so a demand emerged for expert witnesses. Unfortunately, no one was making sure the expertise on offer was legitimate. And so we got an entire profession of experts who were willing to say things that actual scientists wouldn’t. Juries crave certainty. They swoon for expert witnesses who can wow them with technology. Real scientists don’t speak in certainties. They talk about margins of error, which means jurors find real science less convincing. Our adversarial system may be the best system available for assessing evidence, but it’s hostile to good science. That’s why it’s important that experts willing to tell juries un-scientific things be barred from the courtroom. It’s why we need judges to consult with real scientists when making such decisions. And it’s why we need prosecutors honest enough to resist the temptation to seal convictions with charlatanism masquerading as expertise. But the system also makes all of those things difficult, so it wasn’t until the 1990s and DNA testing — technology developed by scientists, not law enforcement — that we began to see just how wrong forensic analysis could be. There were particular problems within the highly subjective disciplines known as “pattern matching” — fields like hair and fiber analysis and bite-mark matching. Even then, it took another couple of decades before the scientific community began to rigorously apply the scientific method to the claims and methods of forensic analysts. Once they did get involved, in report after report — including that 2009 NAS report, reports from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) report last fall — the “science” in”forensic science” has been found to be somewhere between insufficient and nonexistent. And yet instead of a sense of humility at the profound implications of these reports, law enforcement officials and prosecutors like Sessions have retreated to the battle lines that defined much of the last century. They’ve attacked the scientists as biased, or made bizarre arguments that forensics should be judged on principles other than scientific principles. (Before we give the Obama administration too much praise, it’s worth pointing out that after PCAST issued its damning report on forensics last year, Obama’s own attorney general Loretta Lynch immediately dismissed it.) In only the past decade or so, we have finally managed to nudge forensic analysis at least partly out from its dark ages. While the courts haven’t paid much attention yet, these committees and their reports were the first steps toward subjecting forensics to principles like peer review, blind testing, statistical analysis and the more modern concepts grounded in those principles, like sequential unmasking. Sessions is poised to eradicate that progress. It’s hard to overstate the urgency here. As I’ve written before, DNA testing was a wake-up call. It is not a panacea. In the small pool of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt, the technology revealed serious problems with our criminal-justice system, and forensic evidence was one of the most significant. But the window of opportunity to correct the mistakes exposed by DNA testing will remain open only as long as DNA exonerations are fresh enough in the minds of the public to sustain support for reform. Soon we’ll have exhausted the pool of cases that are old enough to have been decided before DNA testing would have been done early in the investigation, but recent enough that the DNA sample is still available and hasn’t degraded. If the Jeff Sessionses of the world can put off reforms until those cases are exhausted, it becomes much easier to argue that the problems DNA testing exposed are mere relics of the past — that we needn’t worry about all of this anymore. And if we don’t fix the problems DNA testing has exposed, they’ll continue to plague all the other cases for which DNA testing isn’t useful. There will be few new exonerations to argue otherwise, and in the meantime, there will always be a grisly murder or brutal rape in the news to demagogue about the danger of “tying the hands” of police and prosecutors — a tactic Sessions deploys with ease. Only this time, there might be no new technology to let us know that we’re making mistakes. We’ll continue on, blind to the problems we failed to fix. The Obama administration finally provided a platform and framework for real scientists to scrutinize the way forensics is used in the courtroom — but then largely ignored their recommendations. The Trump administration now seems intent on eliminating the platform, too. That window for reform is closing, and Sessions seems content to let it slam shut. He’d prefer to keep forensics in the dark."
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/