Randall Murch, associate director Research Program Development, Virginia Tech National Capital Region, was among the authors of a recently released National Research Council report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

Mandated by Congress, the report finds serious deficiencies in the nation's forensic science system, which includes techniques such as fingerprinting, firearms identification, and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair, and handwriting used in court proceedings. The report calls for stronger standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence, more peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods, and better funded and better staffed labs with more effective oversight.

“This study will fundamentally change the way forensics is done and the way it is used both in the United States and around the world,” said Murch. “We already know that agencies in Canada and elsewhere have asked for this report and that they intend to use it.”

Murch, who worked on this study with a committee of 18 colleagues, said that “the same set of rules should apply to all forensics, no matter how it will be used, whether to support criminal investigations or national security. All forensics should be accurate, reliable, repeatable, transferrable, properly interpreted, effectively communicated, and defensible.”

Murch was selected by the National Academies to membership on this committee because of his 10 years of experience in the FBI Laboratory as a forensic scientist, research scientist, department head, and deputy director. During those years, he served in a leadership position in the U.S. crime lab directors community, led the forensic investigation of a number of major terrorism or suspected terrorism cases, and created the nation’s weapons of mass destruction forensic investigation program which has since spread to other agencies. He has extensive experience in applying science and technology to complex investigations and operations. This was a unique skill and experience base amongst his well-qualified and credentialed colleagues on the committee.

Following are some of the findings and recommendations of the report:

  • Strong leadership is needed to adopt and promote an aggressive, long-term agenda to strengthen forensic science. To achieve this end, Congress should establish a new, independent National Institute of Forensic Science to lead research efforts, establish and enforce standards for forensic science professionals and laboratories, and oversee education standards.
  • Certification should be mandatory for forensic science professionals. Written examinations, supervised practice, proficiency testing, and adherence to a code of ethics should be among the steps required for certification. Accreditation for laboratories should also be required. Labs should establish quality-control procedures designed to ensure that best practices are followed, confirm the continued validity and reliability of procedures, and identify mistakes, fraud, and bias.
  • Nuclear DNA analysis has been subjected to more scrutiny than any other forensic discipline, with extensive experimentation and validation performed prior to its use in investigations. In contrast, for many other forensic disciplines -- such as fingerprint and toolmark analysis -- no studies of large populations have been conducted to determine how many sources might share the same or similar features. For every forensic science method, results should indicate the level of uncertainty in the measurements made, and studies should be conducted to estimate these values. In addition to investigating the limits of the techniques themselves, studies should also examine sources and rates of human error.
  • Court testimony should be grounded in science and acknowledge uncertainties. Two criteria should guide the law's admission of and reliance upon forensic evidence in criminal trials: the extent to which the forensic science discipline is founded on a reliable scientific methodology that lets it accurately analyze evidence and report findings, and the extent to which the discipline relies on human interpretation that could be tainted by error, bias, or the absence of sound procedures and performance standards. There is a critical need to standardize and clarify the terms used by forensic science experts who testify in court about the results of investigations. The words commonly used such as "match," "consistent with," and "cannot be excluded as the source of" are not well-defined or used consistently, despite the great impact they have on how juries and judges perceive evidence.
  • The existing forensic science enterprise lacks the necessary governance structure to move beyond its weaknesses. A new National Institute of Forensic Science could take on its tasks in a manner that is as objective and free of bias as possible, with the authority and resources to implement a fresh agenda designed to address the problems found by the committee. The institute should have a full-time administrator and an advisory board with expertise in research and education, the forensic science disciplines, physical and life sciences, and measurements and standards, among other fields.

The report was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice at the request of Congress. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Institute of Medicine (IOM), and National Research Council (NCR) make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the NAS and the NAE.

Listen online to the public briefing held on February 18 to release this report.

Copies of the full report, ”Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” are available from the National Academies Press.

Reporters may obtain A copy of the full report from the NAS Office of News and Public Information by calling (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242.