April 13, 2021 12:57

Will Biden’s Top Science Adviser Reform Forensics?

Eric Lander, who co-authored a damning 2016 report on the faulty forensic practices behind hundreds of wrongful convictions has been tapped to advise newly elected President Biden as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, reports The Intercept.  In the PCAST report, Lander and other members concluded that a host of long-used pattern-matching forensic practices lacked sufficient scientific underpinning. After four years of the Trump administration, which saw federally driven efforts at reforming forensics grind to a halt, many hope that having Lander and other well-respected scientists in key policy positions will reinvigorate those initiatives.

Save for DNA analysis, forensic science disciplines were mainly developed according to the needs of law enforcement — bereft of scientific underpinning. That’s particularly true of so-called pattern-matching practices like fingerprint analysis, firearm analysis, bite-mark analysis, shoe tread analysis, and handwriting analysis, all of which involve an “expert” looking at a piece of evidence and visually tying it to a suspect. PCAST was not the first body to point out the lack of scientific foundation to these practices. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark study titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which questioned the basis of nearly every forensic discipline used to arrest, prosecute, and send people to prison. Roughly a quarter of the more than 2,700 cases in the National Registry of Exonerations involved faulty or misleading forensic evidence; forensic errors have been implicated in about half of the more than 500 exonerations based on DNA testing.

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