Justice Department Proposes New Standards for Expert Testimony

Filed under: Criminal Law, News by Contributor @ June 7, 2016


After finding last year that nearly all hair examiners in FBI forensics units had overstated testimony regarding hair matches, which have incriminated defendants in criminal trials over the last several decades, the Justice Department just recently proposed the first department-wide standards for expert testimony. These standards will seek to ensure that forensic experts within the Justice Department only make statements in courtrooms and laboratory reports that are backed by valid science.

These standards, which are known as the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports, are derived from guidance developed by the FBI for around 20 techniques and will apply to all Justice Department personnel, including agents for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Once finalized and adopted, the purpose of these standards will be to clarify what scientific statements forensic experts may use when testifying in court or when writing reports. As it stands now, the standards will apply to serology, toxicology, and drug and chemical examiners. Additionally, the standards will also apply to experts who make subjective, pattern-based comparisons of things like foot and tire tracks, fibers, and glass.  The Department will also propose more standards for other techniques later this summer, including for DNA, hair, handwriting, and explosive devices.

These changes come after a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded in 2009 that although examiners had claimed to be able to match pattern evidence to a source with absolute scientific certainty, only methods for DNA evidence had been confirmed as valid through statistical research. Because of this, many defendants may have been wrongfully convicted through the use of unreliable scientific evidence.

The proposed language for these new standards has been posted on the Justice Department’s website, and the Department has invited public comment on the proposed language until July 8th. Here is the complete new language for any of the forensic disciplines’ standards.

What do you think of the Justice Department’s decision to propose these new standards? Let us know in the comment section below.

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