Wednesday, September 21, 2016

PCAST: (Part 4); (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology); PCAST issues well documented, well researched report on forensic science - Will this report's call be heard?

COUNTDOWN: 15 days to Wrongful Conviction Day: (Thursday October 6, 2016);

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: It was a neat surprise to stumble on Christine Funks Blog 'FunkCSI' on the Blogosphere. It appears as if this relatively new Blog will  bring a fresh, enthusiastic approach to blogging about forensic science,  written by someone who understands the issues, can express them clearly, and  wants  to ensure that flawed forensic 'science' is exposed and has no place in the courts.  My kind of Blogger! (I will add (FunkCSI) to my 'links.'

Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog.

Christine Funk started at the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office in 1994.  She was assigned her first forensic science case in 1995.  Not being a scientist by training, she struggled to understand the forensic science evidence in that and subsequent cases. Eventually, she managed to translate the scientific language into something she could understand.  Since then, she has worked towards making scientific evidence understandable to other lawyers, judges and lay people.  Ms. Funk was General Counsel at the Department of Forensic Sciences in Washington, D.C.  She is now a consultant. Ms. Funk served as an advisory member of the Education, Ethics, and Terminology Interagency Working Group under the National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Forensic Science and a charter member of the MN Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board.  She also served on the Board of the Minnesota Innocence Project. She is currently serving on the Legal Resource Committee for the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC), part of an initiative by NIST and the Department of Justice to strengthen forensic science in the United States.)

GIST: This morning,  (September 20, 2016 (HL)) the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released recommendations of actions to be taken to strengthen forensic science.  The report was written in response to a request from the president to ascertain whether there were “additional steps on the scientific side, beyond those already taken by the Administration in the aftermath of the highly critical 2009 National Research Council report on the state of forensic sciences” that would assist in ensuring the validity of forensic evidence used in court.
During the course of a year, PCAST reviewed more than 2,000 papers, spoke with forensic scientists, attorneys and judges, researchers, and members of federal agencies.  The report expressed concern about DNA analysis of complex mixtures, latent fingerprint analysis, bitemark, hair, and firearms analysis.  The report also suggests the Attorney General should “direct attorneys appearing on behalf of the Department of Justice to ensure expert testimony in court. . . meets the standards of scientific validity.”  It also recommends the Attorney General “revise and reissue for public comment the DOJ proposed ‘Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports’ and supporting documents to bring them into alignment with standards for scientific validity.”  Given that DOJ’s proposed original ‘uniform language’ document did not meet the standards of scientific validity, it is difficult to imagine how those same attorneys are capable of ensuring expert testimony meet the aforementioned standards.
The response to the report is already disappointing.  According to the Washington Post, “the Justice Department had held a series of calls with prosecutors, law enforcement and lab officials, and that it . . . and would provide ‘a packet of information to federal prosecutors regarding how to dispute this report in court.’”  The Post also quotes the National District Attorney’s Association, “Adopting any of their recommendations would have a devastating effect.”  Finally, the Post quotes the FBI’s statement indicating the PCAST report contained “troubling generalized conclusions about all forensic science disciplines.” This reaction is not unlike the reaction to the 2009 report by the NRC.  Prosecutors and law enforcement wring their hands and declare it’s simply not possible to remove the use of forensic science from the courtroom, without regard to the science or data. The report points out, “neither experience, nor judgment, nor good professional practices (such as certification programs and accreditation programs, standardized protocols, proficiency testing, and codes of ethics) can substitute for actual evidence of foundational validity and reliability.”  It goes on to state, “Similarly, an expert’s expression of confidence based on personal professional experience or expressions of consensus among practitioners about the accuracy of their field is no substitute for error rates estimated from relevant studies.”.........In the bitemark section, PCAST made a comment that could apply to all disciplines discussed. We note that some practitioners have expressed concern that the exclusion of bitemarks in court could hamper efforts to convict defendants in some cases. If so, the correct solution, from a scientific perspective, would not be to admit expert testimony based on invalid and unreliable methods but rather to attempt to develop scientifically valid methods. Protests from prosecutors, law enforcement, and judges, who typically do not have scientific training, should not drown out repeated calls for putting “science” in forensic science.  Judge Kozinski perhaps said it best in his editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “Among the more than 2.2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, countless may have been convicted using unreliable or fabricated forensic science. The U.S. has an abiding and unfulfilled moral obligation to free citizens who were imprisoned by such questionable means.  If your son or daughter, sibling or cousin, best friend or spouse, was the victim of voodoo science, you would expect no less.”

The entire post can be found at: