Forensic science, a misnomer

Our view: Experts' call to standardize forensic science deserves a national response

Maryland's efforts to improve crime lab work here are but one small step

February 20, 2009

Baltimore prosecutors often complain that city jurors are unduly influenced by TV crime dramas. They call it the "CSI Effect," a reference to the popular television show where fingerprints, bullet fragments, gunshot residue, bite marks and other forensic evidence almost always match a suspect to a crime. That's not the way it is in real life, though plenty of criminal cases have been decided on just that kind of evidence.

Now, prosecutors in Maryland and across the nation will have to contend with a judgment of forensic science more troubling and problematic for the criminal justice system than any prime-time soap. After two years of rigorous study, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences has called for a major overhaul of the field because it lacks a basis in science. It's a damning critique of a profession without mandatory, national standards and where the quality of crime labs and technicians varies greatly.

The report by the National Research Council identified as problematic the affiliation of state crime labs with police departments - the practice in Baltimore and Baltimore County and at the Maryland State Police - because of potential bias. The one area of forensic science singled out for praise was DNA analysis, which panel members rightly pointed out evolved from scientific research and practice.

To address its concerns, the council has recommended the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science that would promote research and develop analysis standards, lab certification requirements and training protocols that would regulate the field nationwide.

The council's study validates a growing chorus of criticism, principally from defense attorneys, that the credibility of forensic evidence is suspect, despite its evolution over the decades and attempts to professionalize the work. The report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States" (available at www.nap.edu), should be mandatory reading for judges and lawmakers in Maryland. The Baltimore police crime lab has had its problems in the past year and is undergoing reforms and upgrades, and other issues with so-called forensic experts have raised concerns here.

Maryland is taking steps required by the state legislature to develop uniform regulations and licensing standards for crime labs operating in the state. The labs, which would be regulated by the state health department, will have until 2011 to become licensed. But until an independent national institute is established, efforts to improve the quality of this work will remain a state-by-state endeavor, slowing the robust reforms needed for this so-called science.

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