Republican war on science has come to the U.S. Department of Justice,
with the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to eliminate the
Commission on Forensic Sciences
The commission was started by President Obama in 2013 in partnership
with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at the
U.S. Department of Commerce to enhance the practice and improve the
reliability of forensic science. The commission includes forensic
science service providers on the federal, state and local level,
research scientists and academics, law enforcement, judges,
prosecutors, defense attorneys and other stakeholders, according to
purpose of the NCFS is to ensure the reliability of forensic science,
so that innocent people are not sent to prison or put to death for
crimes they did not commit. Hundreds, but more likely thousands, of
innocent people have been condemned due to junk science and unsound
forensic evidence and techniques. The importance of this Obama-era
initiative was underscored when in 2015, the FBI conducted a review
of 3,000 cases involving microscopic hair samples and discovered that
percent of the time.
U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, the Innocence Project, and the
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) had been
working together on this review. “These findings confirm that
FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error,
grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with
the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions’ case,”
said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, in an FBI
called the turn of events an “epic miscarriage of justice”
demanding research and national standards, and wondered why it took
nearly four decades to come to light.
will be many months before we can know how many people were wrongly
convicted based on this flawed evidence, but it seems certain that
there will be many whose liberty was deprived and lives destroyed by
prosecutorial reliance on this flawed, albeit highly persuasive
evidence,” said Norman L. Reimer, Executor Director of NACDL.
Reimer added that just as lawmakers must prevent future systemic
failures, courts must give a second look at those whose convictions
were impacted by such evidence.
FBI report followed a 2005 announcement that the FBI would no longer
conduct bullet lead examinations on the grounds that tests of
crime-scene bullets for trace elements such as copper, arsenic and
tin were worthless. In addition, in 2009, the National Academy of
Sciences reported that the forensic science system is unreliable and
has ”serious problems” requiring a national commitment to
overhauling it. The solution, according to the report, is effective
leadership from federal and state government and “a significant
infusion of federal funds.”
a result of the 2015 findings on hair samples, the NCFS was prepared
to dig deeper and scrutinize a broad spectrum of forensic
disciplines. Last year, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates
announced an expansion of DOJ’s forensics team and plans to
conduct a “quality assurance review” of certain forensic
science disciplines. Noting the authority of scientific experts is
“second to none,” Yates said the strength of scientific
forensic evidence must be accurately conveyed to judges and juries,
and statements should be supported by sound science.
The Washington Post reported, last year, the 20-member President’s
Council of Advisors on Science and Technology urged courts to
question the reliability of methods to trace complex DNA samples,
bullets, tread and bite marks as evidence in criminal cases.
less than lives are at stake here. Bad forensic evidence is
responsible for the incarceration of thousands of innocent people.
The National Registry of Exonerations found that false or misleading
forensic evidence was a contributing factor in 480 cases, or 24
percent of the 2,015 cases in its database of wrongful criminal
convictions. Black people account for nearly half (46 percent or 944
people) of those who were exonerated and nearly half (46 percent or
219 people) of those exonerees who were wrongfully convicted due to
bad forensic science.
has opposed any calls to re-examine such cases because doing so
would, in his words, “leave prosecutors having to fend off
challenges on the most basic issues in a trial.” In that vein,
Sessions is disbanding a crucial body to reform forensic science,
replacing it with a Senior Forensic Advisor. As is the case with
local law enforcement agencies, the attorney general does not believe
the federal government has a role in forensic science.
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,”
Sessions said in a statement.
National District Attorneys Association applauded the decision,
claiming in a statement that the commission was dominated by defense
lawyers, lacked adequate representation from state and local
practitioners and “failed to produce work products of
significance for the forensic science community.”
denied a spot on the federal bench due to his racism, Sessions has
proven himself an enemy of racial justice, civil rights and reform of
the criminal justice system. As U.S. Attorney in West Alabama, he
prosecuted three civil rights activists on trumped-up voter fraud
charges. As Alabama attorney general, he advocated for mandatory
death sentences for twice-convicted marijuana dealers, as Salon
reported, and fostered an environment of racial bias in jury
selection. Sessions defended the conduct of a racist prosecutor in
the case of Earl McGahee, who was sentenced to death for double
murder in Selma. He was convicted by an all-white jury after the
prosecution struck all 24 eligible Black jurors, citing “low
intelligence” for six of them, as The Nation reported. A
federal court reversed his conviction.
called Roy Johnson, the district attorney for Dallas County who
oversaw the McGahee case and also recommended that Sessions prosecute
the voter fraud case, an “outstanding prosecutor” and a
“personal friend.” Sessions also fought against freedom
for Larry Randall Padgett, who was convicted of murder after
prosecutors withheld DNA evidence of his innocence.
the 2016 election, Sessions campaigned for Donald Trump, who ran on a
law-and-order platform. In 1989, following the arrest of the
five Black and Latino teens wrongfully convicted for the brutal rape
and beating of a white woman — Trump placed a full-page ad in
the four New York daily newspapers calling for the reinstatement of
the death penalty. Although DNA evidence exonerated the men, Trump
still maintains they are guilty.
Trump and Sessions are waging a war on science, armed with the power
to place more innocent people behind bars.
This commentary was originally published by AtlantaBlackStar