WASHINGTON — A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research. Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence.And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight. – From a press release from the US National Research Council, published Feb 18, 2009 [Link]
This is the ominous start to a long press release summarizing the recent findings of the National Research Council into the state of Forensic Science in the United States. As you can imagine, it’s not generous in it’s praise as it finds serious defects in both the practice and theory of forensics. Does this translate to Canada? Some of it undoubtedly does, as there is much cross-pollination between the two countries in terms of training and expertise-sharing. Still, Canada has national standards and joint training that are unmatched in the United States.
Keep in mind, though, that the role of the courts isn’t to find somebody guilty beyond all doubt; “reasonable doubt” is the standard that actually exists, recognizing that real evidence, it’s collectors and its analysis is always imperfect. High standards are important and there’s always going to be room for improvement but this article seems a little rough on a set of disciplines that have evolved out of the needs of practitioners, not from the science lab or pure theory.
A rough analogy would be farming; is it fair to criticise a farmer for not keeping detailed notes and undertaking double-blind multi-dimentional studies involving combinations of fertilizer, seed stocks and harvesting methods? Of course not, all that matters is that “it works”. As far as it goes, fingerprints are pretty darned good at identifying individuals uniquely–not perfect, but “they work”.
At the Police Museum, we’re not experts in the philosophical, theoretical or legal aspects of the forensic sciences, and don’t try to be. We have, however, developed a great appreciation for all those who work tirelessly to identify, collect and analyze evidence in real crime scenes, often in difficult or dangerous circumstances. In an age where some juries are starting to expect evidence to prove beyond all doubt that someone is guilty (with fancy 3D animations and charasmatic witnesses), it’s not an easy job at the best of times.
Keep up the good work, and we’ll keep teaching the public about what you do and how its done. (Without giving away all the secrets, of course.)