Friday, September 2, 2016

Unhappiness Expressed over PCAST Draft Report

The PCAST Report described yesterday is the subject a couple of newspaper articles that provide more information about it. The Los Angeles Times quoted verbatim from the "do not quote or distribute" draft report:
  • In what is likely to be its most controversial finding, the report states that analysis linking firearms to bullets and shell casings “falls short” of scientific standards for admission as evidence. If judges permit such testimony, the report says, they should tell jurors that error rates by firearms examiners are higher than would be expected.
  • “It has become apparent, over the past decade, that faulty forensic feature comparison has led to numerous miscarriages of justice,” according to the draft report dated Aug. 26. “It has also been revealed that the problems are not due simply to poor performance by a few practitioners, but rather to the fact that the reliability of many forensic feature-comparison methods has never been meaningfully evaluated.”
As for reactions,
  • [Unnamed] current and former U.S. law enforcement officials ... said they were particularly irked that the group was calling into question firearms evidence, which has long been considered grounded in science by judges and appeals courts.
  • John Walsh, former U.S. attorney in Colorado, said he was “surprised and concerned” by the commission’s findings. He said the Justice Department had been working for years to better evaluate potential evidence and fairly explain its meaning and limitations to jurors.
  • Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, was briefed on the recommendations and said it appeared to be based on a “half-baked model” that “calls into question technologies” that have long been used in court.
The Wall Street Journal, referring to a copy of the report that its reporters had read, provided these quotations from the draft:
  • “It has become increasingly clear in recent years that lack of rigor in the assessment of the scientific validity of forensic evidence is not just a hypothetical problem but a real and significant weakness in the judicial system”
  • In the draft, the council looked at several common analyses used in criminal trials, including latent fingerprints, firearms, footwear, bite marks and DNA [and] found ... that a number of them either weren’t scientifically valid or hadn’t been independently scrutinized enough by “science based agencies” to have “foundational validity,” meaning it had met the standard for “whether evidence is based on reliable principles and methods.”
  • The report said foundational validity requires studies by more than one group, but only one such study had been done on firearm analysis. “Because only one such study has been done “the current evidence falls short of the scientific criteria for foundational validity.”
It too described angst or concern on the part of some organizations:
  • Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, which does law enforcement-related research, said he would be interested in the opinions of crime lab experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Just because there is a lack of science does not mean the analysis is inaccurate or done wrong or is not worthwhile,” he said.
  • “What they’ve done is turn the accepted reliability of expert witnesses and their evidence on their heads,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “As a result there will be people who are not going to go to jail who should be incarcerated and some who are currently incarcerated will be released. The effect will be a threat to the public safety of American citizens.”

○ Del Quentin Wilber, White House Panel Expected to Issue Report Critical of Some Forensic Evidence in Criminal Cases, L.A. Times, Sept. 1, 2015
○ Gary Fields & Kate O’Keeff, Presidential Advisory Council Questions Validity of Forensics in Criminal Trials: Group Sees Lack of Science Behind Much of Bite-mark, Hair, Footwear, Firearm and Tool-mark Analysis, Wall St. J., Sept. 1, 2016
PCAST Recommends More Forensic Science R&R (Research & Reform), Forensic Sci., Stat. & L., Sept. 1, 2016,

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