When evidence is used to prove guilt in a criminal case, that evidence needs to be valid. It's a basic tenet of the criminal justice system that prosecutors aren't supposed to fight simply to win, but to fight for justice. They're not supposed to cut corners on evidence, and if there is a problem with that evidence, they're required to tell the defense.
Yet by 2012 it had become obvious that we have a major problem with evidence in our justice system. Forensic science, as it turns out, isn't as fundamentally sound a science as you might think. Worse, it can be -- and has been -- manipulated.
For example, in April 2015, the FBI was forced to acknowledge that virtually every forensic examiner in its elite microscopic hair comparison unit had been acting like a pro-prosecution witness in virtually every trial. Twenty-six of 28 examiners overstated how much their results showed the defendant's guilt. They did that in over 95 percent of the 268 trials that had been reviewed.
Those trials included 32 people who were ultimately sentenced to death. Of those, 14 had already been executed or had died in prison when the problems were identified with the evidence used against them.
What other forensic techniques have been found questionable?
Unfortunately, far too many. Last September, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology unanimously urged the justice system to reconsider the use of several common types of forensic evidence used to trace bullets, DNA samples, tire treads and bite marks were all called into question.
While holding back on recommending banning the techniques, the Council recommended that scientific standards be tightened, and that prosecutors be required to show the evidence met certain basics before it could be entered into evidence. Moreover, the Council urged prosecutors and judges to give more weight to scientists who testify about the reliability of scientific techniques, even when those techniques are common and seem familiar.
On top of that, there have been scandals nationwide about overworked, under-trained, perfidious or lazy lab technicians producing evidence that turned out to be bogus. Five years ago, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences exhorted the White House to promulgate better standards for crime labs -- and to remove them from the direct control of police and prosecutors.
"The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure," wrote the panel.
Making matters worse, hundreds of people have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the past two decades. These people were wrongly convicted -- often through misuse of the very technique that set them free when used correctly.
If there are problem with the quality of forensic evidence, who is working on the problem?
These issues have been widely known since at least 2012 and are occurring nationwide in both the federal and justice systems, but little progress seems to have been made. This is thought to be because the facts and policy analysis were being performed by dozens of ad hoc groups across the country. Some of those groups are political; others report directly to prosecutors or police.
In 2013, the Obama Administration decided to put a group of real experts together to tackle the problem. It was a 30-member commission National Commission on Forensic Science, co-chaired by officials from the Justice Department the National Institute of Standards and Technology a Commerce Department science agency. Members include judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, researchers and forensic scientists.
Its final meeting had just begun, with a review of the far-reaching recommendations it had come up with over four long years. Unfortunately, just as the commission was winding up, Attorney General Jeff Sessions disbanded the group. The Justice Department has suspended any work on developing uniform forensic evidence standards.