In February of 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a landmark report on forensic evidence that would have lasting effects on the career of every criminal defense lawyer. The report raised serious questions on the credibility of forensic science that shook the foundations of the legal system all the way to the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia acknowledged: “forensic evidence is not uniquely immune to the risk of manipulation.”
Allegations of forensic evidence being used without backup of substantial evidence are common in the legal field and the experience of a criminal defense lawyer. Forensic evidence frequently finds itself in the court room being taken at face value without anyone bothering to check its credentials. A good criminal defense lawyer will be aware of the inherent problems involved in forensic evidence and make these weaknesses apparent throughout the course of the trial.
Though silent for decades, recent challenges to the validity of forensic evidence have surfaced over the last several years. While most were not strong enough to have the evidence thrown out, a good criminal defense lawyer can at least limit the credibility of the expert testimony and call the evidence into question. The forensic community took these challenges very seriously and requested that Congress authorized NAS to use a team of legal experts including a criminal defense lawyer to study the issue.
The NAS Study
The NAS Study included a team of forensic sciences, a laboratory director, university scientists, medical examiners, a judge, a former prosecutor, a criminal defense lawyer, and a law professor. Meeting for 8 sessions, the committee listened to expert testimony on the issue and came up with its own conclusions.
The NAS studied concluded that forensic science facilities have great variation in “capacity, oversight staffing, certification, and accreditation across federal and state jurisdictions.” It found that educational programs are not up to par with other scientific disciplines, and that many labs do not set standards based on thorough research and testing, or participate in certification and accreditation programs. In order to improve the reliability of forensic evidence to the criminal defense lawyer, the process needs substantiation, the study concluded.
The committee recommended several ways to remedy the inherent weakness of forensic science. The committee recommended the creation of an independent agency to oversee the field. They also suggested separating crime laboratories from law enforcement. Though these are controversial measures, a criminal defense lawyer could argue that it serves to substantiate the evidence.
Lack of standards
The NAS study concluded that the lack of standards in regards to forensic evidence is particularly troublesome and throws serious doubts on such evidence. Much of the forensic evidence was found to lack creditable support, relying primarily heavily on subjunctive evidence.
The importance of questioning forensic evidence
As the issue further evolves, forensic evidence will become more substantiated. The process will be overseen by a independent legal body through a standard sets of procedures that protect its validity.
In its current form, however, forensic evidence presents more legal questions than answers. A criminal defense lawyer must make these doubts part of the case. In an American courtroom, guilt must be beyond the shadow of a doubt. Forensic evidence remains clouded by doubt and deserves to be discredited in a court room. Questioning the validity of forensic evidence by a criminal defense lawyer can have great affects on the outcome of a legal case.