Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday the Justice Department will no longer partner with an independent group of experts that has been working to improve the accuracy of forensic science.
In a public statement first reported by the Washington Post, Sessions announced he would not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group of scientists, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other experts tasked by the Obama administration in 2013 with raising standards for the use of forensic evidence in criminal proceedings.
The commission, which has been critical in recommending forensic standards, guidance, and policies to the DOJ, is set to expire on April 23. Sessions said Monday that the roles will instead shift internally to a still-unnamed senior forensic adviser and an internal department crime task force.
“The availability of prompt and accurate forensic science analysis to our law enforcement officers and prosecutors is critical to integrity in law enforcement, reducing violent crime and increasing public safety,” Sessions said in the statement. “As we decide how to move forward, we bear in mind that the Department is just one piece of the larger criminal justice system and that the vast majority of forensic science is practiced by state and local forensic laboratories and is used by state and local prosecutors.”
Last year, the Obama White House and DOJ took efforts to strengthen forensic science, given the rates at which experts overstate and mislead the efficacy of analyzing forensic evidence such bite marks, shoe prints, hair samples, and firearms during criminal trials.
In September, a White House panel recommended that courts question the admissibility of four different techniques that are often used to secure convictions. While examiners often rely on those techniques and claim that they can name a source with absolute certainty, there is only statistical research to back up DNA analysis, scientists found. At the time, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other top prosecutors across the country said they would continue to rely on the methods anyway.
There have been at least 2,000 exonerations in the United States since 1989 and many of the convictions were secured through the use of faulty forensics, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The Innocence Project has noted that bite-mark analysis, one of the methods studied by the commission, has led to several false convictions.
According to the Washington Post, the full National Commission on Forensic Science voted in January against recommending its renewal, but a number of members last week were already warning of the disastrous consequences of eliminating their independent group. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of New York, who serves on the commission, told the Post that “it is unrealistic to expect that truly objective, scientifically sound standards for the use of forensic science… can be arrived at by entities centered solely within the Department of Justice.”
And six leading scientists wrote in a letter Thursday that the commission should be renewed for another two-year term because “for too long, decisions regarding forensic science have been made without the input of the research science community.”
This isn’t the only area in which the Trump administration is making decisions about science without consulting scientists. A Washington Post analysis from last month found that the president had filled just one of 46 key science and technology positions in his administration. At the same time, he has proposed massive cuts to agencies focused on science, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, NASA and National Institutes of Health. His pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a fervent denier of climate change.