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Crime labs nationwide must be overhauled to prevent the types of mistakes that put innocent people in prison and leave criminals out on the street, researchers have concluded.
A 255-page report from the National Academy of Sciences is urging creation of national standards of training, certification and expertise for forensic criminal work, much of which is currently done on a city or state level.
The report's authors say the lack of consistent standards raises the possibility that the quality of forensic evidence presented in court can vary unpredictably.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday he had not reviewed the report, but said the government should devote "more attention, more time, more resources, to that issue."
"We have the potential to resolve a lot of crimes to find people who are guilty, to absolve people who are not, through the use of these great forensic techniques," Holder said.
In particular, the report's authors point out that, with the lone exception of DNA evidence, similar analysis of bite marks, tool marks, or hair samples, cannot provide a conclusive "match" in the common understanding of the term.
Such evidence can show similarities between a suspect and evidence left at a crime scene, but does not provide absolute certainty.
Peter Neufeld, co-founder of The Innocence Project which helps free wrongly convicted prisoners, said the findings marked nothing less than a "seismic shift" in criminal forensic science.
"It's going to take a national undertaking, a massive national overhaul, to make our forensic science community sufficiently robust," argued Neufeld.
Peter Marone, the director of Virginia's forensic lab, acknowledged "there are some issues that need to be addressed" within the profession, but said by and large the report's recommendations echo what he and other experts have been saying for years.
"We need better education, we need better standardization, and we do need accredited universities," he said.
The report comes at a time when public perceptions of forensic evidence are being pulled in opposite directions.
The now-regular use of new DNA evidence overturning past convictions has led to renewed doubts about the accuracy of other forensic methods. In the meantime, popular shows like "CSI" suggest such evidence contains little or no room for doubt.
The federal government, the report concluded, should step in and assert uniform principles to the scientific evidence and testimony that often play a critical role in courtrooms.
"The forensic science community and the medical examiner/coroner system must be upgraded if forensic practitioners are to be expected to serve the goals of justice," the report found.
Professional organizations of crime scene investigators, lab technicians, medical examiners and coroners are not powerful enough on their own to overhaul the system, the report's authors conclude.
The NAS report recommends Congress create and fund a new, national institute of forensic science to help establish consistent standard for forensic science, certification of experts, and development of new technology. It also recommends that forensic science work be moved out of the offices of law enforcement agencies to foster more unbiased analysis.