The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology today released a report entitled “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature Comparison Methods.” You can access the report here. According to a White House press release, “the study aims to help close the gaps for a number of ‘feature-comparison’ methods — specifically, methods for comparing DNA samples, bitemarks, latent fingerprints, firearm marks, footwear, and hair.” The report contains a number of recommendations directed at the FBI Laboratory, the Attorney General, and the judiciary as well as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
In cases with feature comparison evidence that was not gathered and evaluated as recommended in the report, the report may support the exclusion of the evidence or provide a fruitful area of cross examination. It should also help limit the opinions the government can elicit from its experts, as the report contains specific recommendations about expert testimony.
The recommendations include:
- NIST should perform evaluations, on an ongoing basis, of the scientific validity of current and newly developed forensic feature-matching technologies and should issue an annual public report on the results.
- NIST should take a leadership role in transforming three important feature-comparison methods—DNA analysis of complex mixtures, latent-fingerprint analysis, and firearms analysis—from currently subjective methods, with their heavy reliance on human judgement, into objective methods, in which standardized, quantifiable processes require little or no judgment.
- OSTP should coordinate the creation of a national forensic science research and development strategy.
- The FBI Laboratory should undertake a vigorous research program to improve forensic science, building on its recent important work on latent-fingerprint analysis.
- The Attorney General should direct attorneys appearing on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure expert testimony in court about forensic feature-comparison methods meets the standards of scientific validity.
- The Attorney General should revise and reissue for public comment the DOJ proposed “Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports” and supporting documents to bring them into alignment with standards for scientific validity.
- When deciding the admissibility of expert testimony, Federal judges should take into account the appropriate scientific criteria for assessing scientific validity.