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Proposed bill calls for better forensic science

Investigators who linked DNA from Occupy Wall Street protesters to a murder scene in New York City recently admitted that they had made a mistake. No one was put behind bars, but all too often, they are. A piece of legislation proposed yesterday seeks to end wrongful convictions through better forensic science.

Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives say that the Forensic Science and Standards Act would spur more research and higher standards in forensic work.

“To ensure justice is being served, we want law enforcement and forensic practitioners to work alongside scientists and researchers to make sure that forensic evidence stands up to scientific rigor,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (Democrat–Texas) in an official statement.

The bill calls for the creation of a forensic-science committee, chaired by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), which would assess how best to handle material from a crime scene, for example, and issue guidelines. Meanwhile, basic research into new forensic-science tools and techniques might fall under the guise of a proposed National Forensic Science Coordinating Office, housed at the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

Over the next five years, the bill would provide US$200 million in grants for forensic-science research, and $100 million for the development of forensic-science standards.

The NSF and NIST now support forensic research, but the bill proposes a more coordinated approach. Projects funded in the past include automated approaches to handwriting analysis, tracking using vultures outfitted with global positioning systems, and enhanced methods for detecting slight traces of drugs. But no central body for forensics exists.

Policy-makers reference a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that highlighted cases in which information based on faulty forensic analyses contributed to the wrongful convictions of innocent people. The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal group based in New York, says that about half of the 292 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing over the past few decades involved poor forensic science. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the project, calls the bill a “giant step forward”.  (Separately, the Innocence Project also said in a statement posted this week that it is aiding the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a broad review of cases that involved hair and fibre analysis.)

Although both the 2009 report and the Innocence Project highlight the utility of DNA evidence, it’s the quality of the test that matters. Here too, scientists can help. For example, a DNA test provided the evidence that sent Robert Dewey to jail in 1996 for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado. Seventeen years later, in April, the court declared Dewey innocent on the basis of new results from a re-test of the DNA extracts with more advanced methods.

On 18 July the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the bill presented yesterday by John Rockefeller IV of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, along with Johnson, Donna Edwards and Daniel Lipinski of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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