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DOJ revives effort looking at forensic evidence

The DOJ is reviving work on federal standards for what forensic experts can say in court and plans to create a program to monitor the accuracy of forensic testimony


In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks in Bethesda, Md.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

By Sadie Gurman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is reviving work on federal standards for what forensic experts can say in court and plans to create a program to monitor the accuracy of forensic testimony.

The department initiated the effort following revelations in 2015 that FBI hair examiners had overstated the strength of their evidence in cases dating back decades. Longstanding concerns remain about the quality of forensic evidence in criminal cases across the country.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Monday in prepared remarks that the effort will resume.

“We must use forensic analysis carefully. But we must continue to use it,” Rosenstein planned to tell a gathering of forensics professionals in Atlanta. “We should not exclude reliable forensic analysis - or any reliable expert testimony - simply because it is based on human judgment.”

Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s work to set guidelines that clarify what forensic experts can say while testifying at trial or preparing scientific reports was suspended. About the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended an Obama-era commission of independent scientists that aimed to improve the reliability of forensic science, raising concerns among defense attorneys and other advocates about the future of the Justice Department’s work in that arena.

Taking the commission’s place will be a “forensic science working group” whose top mission will be setting uniform standards for testimony, with input from defense attorneys, academic and forensic scientists and other stakeholders, Rosenstein planned to announce Monday. Its leader will be Ted Hunt, a longtime prosecutor from Missouri whose online biography says he has worked on more than 100 felony trials, most of which have involved DNA or other forensic evidence. He was also involved with the National Commission on Forensic Science, the group Sessions allowed to expire. A new group with an in-house adviser had been anticipated, but Rosenstein said it will seek feedback from outside experts, after critics were concerned it would be too insular.

Hunt will “assist the department in deciding its next steps to enhance forensics,” Rosenstein said, according to the remarks. He will rely in part on more than 250 comments and suggestions the department received after the commission disbanded.

The group will also conduct a broad look at the personnel and equipment needs of the nation’s overburdened crime labs, among other aims.

The Justice Department in 2016 issued a draft of standards for examining and reporting forensic evidence, following the discovery of flawed forensics testimony in hundreds of older criminal cases involving microscopic hair analysis. The department found errors relating to hair analysis in at least 90 percent of trial transcripts and covered a period before 2000. The FBI says it has improved its practices since the late 1990s by using more reliable mitochondrial DNA hair analysis in addition to microscopic hair analysis.

The draft guidance covered seven forensic science disciplines, including drug and chemical analysis, body fluid testing, latent fingerprints and toxicology. And it was slated to apply to Justice Department personnel at component agencies including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Officials sought and received public comment on the drafts but the new administration halted work on them so Rosenstein could weigh in on the best course of action.