U.S. Senate: A Bill On Forensics Will Reduce Wrongful Convictions
Senator Jay Rockefeller today said experts on forensic science research in West Virginia provided valuable insights into new legislation aimed at reducing wrongful convictions across the country.
The legislation, the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012, comes on the heels of national concern that some criminal justice proceedings use evidence developed through flawed forensic work. Rockefeller’s bill would strengthen forensic science and standards, yielding evidence that judges, prosecutors, defendants, and juries can fully trust. Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, introduced the bill last week.
West Virginia is a national leader in forensics, with highly regarded academic programs at West Virginia University and Marshall University. The state is also home to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services division in Clarksburg, which houses the world’s largest collection of fingerprints.
“West Virginia is a worldwide leader in forensics and has done groundbreaking work – often leading the field. With more forensics facilities growing throughout the country, this field as continued to expand, but we also know that at some facilities, thousands of criminal convictions may have been based on flawed hair and fiber evidence, for example, and that is deeply disturbing,” Rockefeller said. “West Virginians value fairness and integrity, and we all agree that even one innocent person wrongfully convicted is too many.
“My bill would help fix this problem. It would bring twenty-first century advancements in technology and testing to forensic science. Better collaboration between our scientists and our criminal justice system is the only way to put evidence standards on a solid scientific footing, so that we can successfully convict criminals and protect the innocent,” Rockefeller said.
The National Academy of Sciences, the Washington Post, and a broad array of stakeholders in the criminal justice community have all called for strengthened forensic science and standards.
Last December, Rockefeller chaired a Commerce Committee hearing that explored forensic science standards. The hearing included testimony from Dr. Terry Fenger, Director of Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center. Dr. Fenger talked about the need for West Virginia’s colleges and universities to develop accredited academic programs in forensics.
The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012 would:
• Require Standards Development: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would be directed to develop forensic science standards, in consultation with the standards development organizations and other stakeholders. NIST could establish and solicit advice from discipline-specific expert working groups to identify standards development priorities and opportunities.
• Implement Uniform Standards: A Forensic Science Advisory Committee, chaired by the Director of NIST and the Attorney General, would be established to implement new science-based standards. The Advisory Committee, comprised of research scientists, forensic science practitioners, and members of the legal and law enforcement communities, would make recommendations to the Attorney General on adoption of standards. The Attorney General would direct the standards’ implementation in Federal forensic science laboratories and would encourage adoption in non-Federal laboratories as a condition of Federal funding or for inclusion in national databases.
• Promote Research: The bill would establish a National Forensic Science Coordinating Office, housed at the National Science Foundation (NSF), to develop a research strategy and roadmap and to support the implementation of that roadmap across relevant Federal agencies. NSF would establish a forensic science grant program to award funding in areas specifically identified by the research strategy. NSF would be directed to award two grants to create forensic science research centers to conduct research, build relationships with forensic practitioners, and educate students. All agencies with equities in forensic science would be encouraged to stimulate innovative and creative solutions to satisfy the research needs and priorities identified in the research strategy.
Companion legislation was recently introduced in the House, and Rockefeller said he’ll press Congressional colleagues to act swiftly in bringing the bills up for a vote.