Recently, about 1,400 forensic pathologists, fingerprint examiners and other crime scene investigators from across the country met in San Antonio for the International Association for Identification's annual International Educational Conference. At the top of the agenda was improving the standards for collecting, testing and presenting forensic evidence.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a major report criticizing the forensic science community as having relied on assumptions, processes and methods that weren't grounded in data.
"With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis ... no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source," the report reads.
In 2015, the FBI admitted that the testimony of forensic scientists on microscopic hair analysis was erroneous at least 90 percent of the time. It has since come forward to admit that many traditional forensic methods are deeply questionable. These include, for example, bite mark analysis, footprint and tire track comparison, blood spatter evidence, and even fingerprint examination.
The Innocence Project reports that the misapplication of forensic science has been identified in 45 percent of DNA exonerations. Bad forensic science, defined as reliance on unreliable methods, mistakes, misleading testimony and forensic misconduct, is the second most common contributing factor to wrongful convictions.
Organizations are stepping up to improve the quality of the evidence. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has set up the Organization of Scientific Area Committee for Forensic Science to evaluate and create scientific standards for a variety of forensic techniques. In four years, the organization's 550 practitioners have created 11 standards. Some 200 more are planned.
The Department of Defense's Defense Forensic Science Center is also pitching in. After noticing that nothing in fingerprint analysis had been updated for at least 30 years, the center created an algorithm-based tool called FRstat that provides the examiner with a statistical analysis of a fingerprint match. The tool began being used last year and had been used in at least 400 cases -- and a peer-reviewed article was published about it in April. However, it took three years to develop.
The good news, perhaps, is that it is challenging fingerprint examiners' assumptions. "There is a shock value of 'I thought my evidence was stronger than the result I'm getting,'" notes the head of the team that developed FRstat.
It's great news that forensic scientists are working to ensure more of their methods meet scientific scrutiny. At the same time, it's crucial for the public to understand that real-world forensic science isn't always as accurate as CSI shows make it seem.