GIST: "Leading U.S. science organizations called on the Justice Department to renew an abandoned partnership with independent scientists to help raise forensic science standards, warning bluntly that doubts about questioned techniques have grown to the point that "society's faith in the American justice system is at risk." The groups, led by the nation's largest general scientific body and professional societies representing chemists, statisticians and human behavioral and brain researchers, were responding to the Trump administration's decision to replace the National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house law enforcement task force and yet-to-be-named adviser. Led by the 120,000-member American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, the groups said in a June 9 letter that after years of enhanced scrutiny, "we simply do not know whether many forensic practices are reliable or valid scientifically."
The association linked the problem to what it described as an inherent conflict of interest in having law enforcement overseeing the work of forensic labs on which police and prosecutors rely to win and defend convictions. "The importance of independence from DOJ in this endeavor cannot be overstated. The DOJ must not be put in the position of using forensic tools in its role as a prosecutor in federal criminal litigation, while simultaneously determining the scientific value of those same tools," the groups wrote.........The change of course comes after an Obama White House panel of scientific advisers last September called on courts to question the admissibility of four heavily used techniques, including firearms tracing, saying claims about their reliability had not been scientifically proved. Scientists' concerns have increased with the rise of new forensic technologies.........Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April declined to renew the commission, a roughly 30-member policy advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers chartered by the Obama administration in 2013 to make recommendations to the department. In a statement at the time, Sessions focused instead on aiding overburdened police crime labs, proposing to survey crime-lab workloads, backlogs and equipment needs as a way to increase the labs' capacities, as well as putting more focus on the need for reliability and "specificity" of results. Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has said he wanted to ensure that Obama-era priorities did not counter Trump administration goals of combating violent crime and promoting police safety and morale. But the administration's handling of the issue has created divisions among some forensic scientists and groups in the federal government and outside. Many of the public commenters said they hoped outside scientists would continue playing a role in Justice Department decision-making, and hoped the department would follow through on commitments to scientific objectivity and transparency. The AAAS called for a panel with "broad representation" from policy, practice and research interests and federal science agencies that would begin by identifying acceptable and invalid forensic practices and research priorities. "Indeed, sidelining scientists has been a key problem," said the American Statistical Association, which has been involved in trying to determine error rates for forensic techniques......... The commission was created after critical reports from the National Academy of Sciences about a dearth of standards and funding for crime labs, examiners and researchers, problems it traced partly to law enforcement control over the system. Although examiners had long claimed to be able to match pattern evidence - such as with firearms or bite marks - to a source with "absolute" or "scientific" certainty, only DNA analysis had been validated through statistical research, scientists reported. The Justice Department last year announced a wider review of testimony by experts across several disciplines after finding that nearly all FBI experts for years had overstated and given scientifically misleading testimony about two techniques the FBI Laboratory long championed: the tracing of crime-scene hairs based on microscopic examinations and of bullets based on chemical composition. The cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison.

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