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today, we criticize Obama's record on forensic science.
WARNING: long-ass pieces at these links
When Obama wouldn’t fight for science
When Obama wouldn’t fight for science
In September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a scathing report on the use of forensic analysis and expertise in the criminal-justice system. The report, “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods,” looked at pattern matching forensic disciplines such as bite mark matching, shoe print matching, blood spatter analysis, fingerprint matching and hair fiber analysis. It also looked at DNA testing when investigators find biological material from multiple sources, a scenario that can bring human subjectivity into the testing. With the exception of single-source DNA testing, the report found serious deficiencies in all areas of forensics it studied.
The PCAST report was damning, but if you’ve been following these issues with any regularity, it wasn’t at all surprising. That was in September. It’s now January. And not only has the Obama administration done nothing about the report, the Justice Department has publicly denounced it. That report, along with others and an administration that seemed unusually equipped to take it seriously, presented a small window in which to reform a system. That window is about slam shut. And we’re about to be governed by a new administration that seems likely to board it up, wallpaper it and overlay it with brick. This wasn’t just a missed opportunity; it was a catastrophe. And it’s difficult to overstate the consequences.
...The aim of the PCAST report, as well as the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and the National Institute of Standards and Technology working groups, was to bring science to forensics — or rather to see if there’s any science behind the claims of forensic analysts. The 19 PCAST members are all scientists. While some legal experts did provide some guidance, the evaluation itself was done by some of the most eminent scientists in the country. These weren’t defense attorneys or social justice activists.
What PCAST, NIST and the NAS have found, overwhelmingly, is that all pattern matching fields of forensics lack any scientific support for their basic assumptions. The Obama administration seemed to understand these problems like no administration to date. Obama himself along with former attorney general Eric Holder have openly acknowledged that the criminal-justice system is flawed and in need of reform. In July 2015, Jo Handelsman, the assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for the eradication of bite mark evidence in court. It’s the Obama administration that oversaw the creation of the NIST working groups to study the validity and reliability of various forensic disciplines. And it was obviously Obama’s own PCAST that produced the paper last year in the first place. The White House even put out a news release touting the report.
And yet when the PCAST study came out, Attorney General Loretta Lynch immediately dismissed it, stating that while “we appreciate their contribution to the field of scientific inquiry, the department will not be adopting the recommendations related to the admissibility of forensic science evidence.” Lynch joined the National District Attorneys Association and various police organizations in casting the study as no big deal.
There are a number of reasons why it is in fact a big deal. First there’s the FBI, which Lynch oversees. Obviously, if the FBI crime lab isn’t going to make changes in the face of these reports, that’s going to affect the quality of the forensic evidence used in federal criminal cases. But the FBI crime lab also does forensics work for local police and prosecutors across the country, so those cases will also be affected. FBI crime lab analysts train state and local analysts, so the bad methods are passed on. The FBI crime lab is also generally seen as the preeminent crime lab in the country, so other crime labs emulate it. If the FBI isn’t going to change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, why should anyone else?
Then there’s the matter of the FBI’s own record. In her statement in September, Lynch argued that the FBI doesn’t need to abide by the PCAST recommendations because, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the Justice Department had taken unprecedented steps to strengthen forensic science, including investments in research, draft guidance to lab experts when they testify in court and ‘reviews of forensic testimony in closed cases.’”
But despite Lynch’s assertions, and despite its reputation, the FBI has a long and sordid record when it comes to dubious forensics dressed up as science.
...Over much of President Obama’s tenure, he has said some important and, in some cases, historic things about criminal-justice reform. He deserves credit for that. But too often those statements have been followed by policy changes that have been largely symbolic. It’s an issue upon which he hasn’t been willing to expend much political capital for substantive change. ... Here’s the haunting part: It’s unlikely that a technology as revolutionary as DNA testing will ever come along again. If we don’t fix the structural problems that DNA testing has exposed, not only will those problems continue to plague the other 90 percent of cases — without those occasional definitive wrongful convictions to grab us by the lapels — courts, politicians, and much of the public will over time be lulled into a new but just as false faith in the system. Without more DNA exonerations, we’ll come to believe that DNA fixed things. And without more DNA exonerations, it’s a false faith from which it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be jarred loose. The wrongful convictions will continue, but they’ll continue with an ever-shrinking possibility of ever being discovered. DNA testing wasn’t just a wake-up call. It was a one-time wake-up call. We ignore it at our peril.
And this is why Obama’s acquiescence to Lynch and the FBI is so maddening and utterly disappointing. This is an administration that claims to believe in science. The science here isn’t in dispute. It is clear and overwhelming. This is an administration that claims to care about justice. The injustices here aren’t in dispute. They are real and thoroughly documented. And they will almost certainly continue.
Prominent Democrats should be reprimanding Obama and Lynch for this. Democrats like to tout themselves as the party of science, usually with a dose of smug (and sometimes justified) condescension. Multiple federal reports authored by preeminent scientists have now emphatically stated for years that bad science is corrupting the justice system. Among real scientists, there’s little dispute about this. The first of these reports came out in 2009. Obama has had seven years to do something substantive about it. He hasn’t. The Democrats also like to tout themselves as the party of justice and equality. The people most affected by these problems are disproportionately poor and disproportionately black. And yet … nothing.
If Obama was just going to allow the DOJ to ignore the PCAST report all along, what was the point of commissioning it in the first place? Why call in the science if the science won’t change anything? The stakes couldn’t be higher here. And the demand is simple: If federal police and prosecutors should want to use expert testimony to put people in prison (or execute them), that testimony should be subjected to and governed by the basic rules of scientific inquiry.
If the Democrats can’t muster the political will for even that, they need to stop claiming to be the party of science.
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