Jeff Sessions wants to keep forensics in the Dark Ages
Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:
When Jeff Sessions was a senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was part of hearings to address the National Academy of Sciences report on the use of forensics in America’s courtrooms. The NAS report had been commissioned by Congress after DNA testing had revealed not only that hundreds of people had been wrongly convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape, but also that about half those people had been convicted due in part to or because of forensic testimony that could only have been wrong.
Sessions wasn’t buying it. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain and leaving prosecutors having to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial,” he said, rebutting the scientists who had come to precisely that conclusion in their report. The “scientific” and “proven” parts were precisely what the report found lacking in too many forensic disciplines. Sessions either didn’t read it — he has a record of criticizing reports without reading them — or simply dismissed it.
When witnesses noted that there was no scientific research to support the field of handwriting analysis, Sessions remarked, “Well, I’ve seen them testify and I’ve seen blow-ups of the handwriting, and it’s pretty impressive.” Who are you going to believe, a team of scientists, or Jeff Sessions’s sense of wonder?
Longtime critics of bad forensics worried that the NAS report was too diplomatic: For example, it didn’t call for the abolition of any dubious disciplines. But for Sessions, even tepid criticism of the tools he and other prosecutors had used for years was a threat. One witness at the hearings was a prosecutor from Wyoming who was testifying in opposition to the report. Sessions tossed him a softball: “Do you believe that the report, perhaps trying to get our attention, used some pretty strong language suggesting the unreliability of what I have always understood to be proven scientific techniques? Is that something that the district attorneys are finding . . . that this is being thrown up to create the impression with a jury that there’s no basis for these kinds of reports?” His main concern was not whether evidence was accurate, but whether the report could make it more difficult to get convictions.
All of which brings us to the big news this week, which, given Sessions’s history, shouldn’t be terribly surprising.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions will end a Justice Department partnership with independent scientists to raise forensic science standards and has suspended an expanded review of FBI testimony across several techniques that have come under question, saying a new strategy will be set by an in-house team of law enforcement advisers.
In a statement Monday, Sessions said he would not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers chartered by the Obama administration in 2013.
A path to meet needs of overburdened crime labs will be set by a yet-to-be-named senior forensic adviser and an internal department crime task force, Sessions’s statement said.
The announcement came as the commission began its last, two-day meeting before its term ends April 23, and as some of its most far-reaching final recommendations remained hanging before the department.
The NCFS was created by the Obama administration in the wake of mounting evidence that forensic evidence was being misstated and misused in courtrooms. The commission was charged with coming up with broad directives on proficiency training, accreditation and certification, and quality control practices.
Sessions’s decision to end the commission is somewhat complicated by a vote the commission members took earlier this year. Under a memorandum of understanding with the Justice Department, the NCFS was initially commissioned to operate for two years. During discussion over what to put in a summary report of the commission’s work, the members voted 16 to 15 not to include language recommending that the commission be renewed.
That could be interpreted to mean that the NCFS members themselves voted to end their own commission — which would make Sessions’s decision to end it seem less controversial. But sources familiar with committee deliberations tell me that this isn’t quite right — a strong majority of the commission does want to continue its work. Some of the 16 who voted against the measure did so because they thought the summary report should include only the commission’s findings; they felt that adding the language about renewal seemed self-serving. Others believe the commission is important and should continue but were somewhat disillusioned by the new administration’s antipathy toward science. Still others wanted the commission to continue, but under a new structure and organization, preferably outside of the Justice Department. According to the sources, there were a few members who may have voted to end the commission entirely, but they were firmly in the minority.
Sessions may not be finished. There’s another important forensics reform initiative started during the Obama administration that Sessions may target next. . .