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Justice Dept. revives some efforts to validate forensic evidence

The Department of Justice has just announced that it will revive a forensic science initiative that was begun in 2012, during the Obama Administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a halt to the initiative in April, in order to invite public comment.

Also in April, as we discussed on this blog at the time, Sessions allowed the authorization for the National Commission on Forensic Science to expire. That group has not been reinitiated.

Instead, the Justice Department will continue its own efforts to address problems with forensic evidence and the testimony of the witnesses who introduce it. In 2015, the FBI admitted that one of its elite forensic units had overstated the scientific certainty of their evidence in 90 to 95 percent of cases studied, and that those overstatements had benefitted the prosecution.

The group specifically identified as having exaggerated their findings was the FBI's hair analysis unit, but ballistics tracing, DNA sampling, tire tread analysis and bite mark analysis are all techniques that have also been challenged.

With such a large proportion of overstated cases, it's likely the training analysts were given on how to present such testimony was problematic.

According to Reuters, the DOJ's forensic science initiative aims to develop new, uniform standards on what forensic scientists should say during trials about the scientific certainty of their evidence. A monitoring system will also be set up to ensure the analysts are following those standards.

"Our uniform language initiative and continuous monitoring program will provide assurance that forensic analysis is used correctly," the deputy attorney general who will be leading the initiative said in a prepared statement. "That will advance the search for truth in federal courtrooms."

It's a positive sign that the deputy attorney general in charge of the initiative views the federal courtroom as where we search for truth rather than fight for convictions. The truth is, no defendant should be convicted on questionable evidence.

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