2417 Defining the Science in Forensic Science

Saturday, February 20, 2010: 8:30 AM
Room 7B (San Diego Convention Center)
Norah Rudin , Independent Consultant, Mountain View, CA
In February, 2009 the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science (NAS) issued their report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United State: a Path Forward. The NAS report makes clear that “change and advancements, both systematic and scientific, are needed in a number of forensic science disciplines to ensure the reliability of work, establish enforceable standards, and promote best practices with consistent application.” Although the report shocked much of the general public, for many associated with the judicial system, and even for some forensic scientists, its revelations are inescapable. Over more than a century of practice, the efficacy of forensic science rarely has been questioned. Many in the legal system, and particularly in the judiciary, assume that all forensic science disciplines are grounded in scientific methodology, and that crime laboratories and forensic science practitioners employ solid practices that ensure that forensic evidence offered in court is valid and reliable. In fact, many forensic arenas, notably the comparison disciplines (e.g. fingerprints, firearms, and handwriting,) lack a fundamental scientific underpinning that would allow practitioners to provide quantifiable measures of reliability, accuracy, and uncertainty. Although some in the forensic community have been sounding the alarm for years, our profession, as a whole, has chosen stagnation over progress, deliberate ignorance over enlightenment. Given the grave consequences of our work – deprivation of liberty or life on one hand, allowing violent offenders to remain at large on the other – aspiring to anything short of the highest scientific standards fails to serve the best interest of justice. In addition to the obvious impact of questionable forensic work on the safety and security of the populace, an indirect consequence to society at large manifests in an erosion of trust that the judicial system will function fairly and objectively. Forensic science developed historically as an adjunct to the law enforcement effort, subject to the same point of view (bias) as law enforcement. Forensic science has been used principally for verification, simply corroborating what is believed to be true without actually challenging it. However, science is capable of providing much greater value to the law, by serving as an independent check in the administration of justice. The paradigm must shift away from science used in blind support of law enforcement to science employed as one instrument, among many, with which to administer justice.
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