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Sessions plans to end group improving forensic science practices

Over the past couple of decades or so, we've seen a lot of people exonerated via DNA evidence. We've seen a litany of scandals involving overburdened, inaccurate and even criminally inadequate crime labs across the nation. We've seen forensic evidence, once considered top-shelf, decline in reputation as its collection, processing, testing and results have all been shown to be subject to error -- or worse, shown to be flawed or invalid.

For example, in 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI were forced to formally acknowledge that one of the FBI's elite forensic units, the hair comparison unit, had overstated their forensic certainty in more than 95 percent of cases in which they testified. In other words, the vast majority of the time, the FBI hair analysis unit gave testimony that falsely supported the prosecution's case.

Just this past September, a White House science panel asked the courts to seriously consider whether the following four heavily-used techniques should even be admissible as evidence. The fact is, their reliability has either never been scientifically established or there are so many errors, on average that the technique is unreliable in real life:

  • Firearms tracing
  • DNA samples
  • Tire tread analysis
  • Bite mark analysis

As a result of scandals like these, in 2012 the DOJ and then U.S. Attorney Eric Holder authorized a new group, the National Commission on Forensic Science to address these ongoing problems with the quality of forensic evidence being used in our criminal courts.

"This initiative is led by the principle that scientifically valid and accurate forensic analysis strengthens all aspects of our justice system," said a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office.

The Commission may wish it had acted more quickly. After four years, the group was about to present its findings and recommendations when now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions disbanded it. His Monday announcement came just before the Commission's final two-day meeting and before some of its most important recommendations were finalized.

What does that mean for the Justice System? Every criminal defendant has a constitutional right to confront the witnesses and evidence being used against him or her. Moreover, prosecutors have an ethical duty to present only evidence known to be reliable, and investigators have a duty to present their findings fairly. If Jeff Sessions doesn't think we need to ensure the forensic evidence used in our courts is actually reliable, we have a real problem brewing.

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