Now that the commission has disbanded, a journalistic rebuke of AG Session's decision is underway in full force. News outlets including The New York Times have strongly criticized Sessions for his supposed dereliction of duty. Media outrage seems directed toward a ghostly assumption that the commission's demise is somehow, someway an endorsement of what the press have come to believe is an incompetent and malfeasant profession of forensic science that pervasively dooms innocent defendants to prison - or worse.
The notion that America's forensic science community is mired in malpractice and misconduct is a myth perpetuated for over 20 years by O.J. Simpson defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who cofounded the Manhattan-based Innocence Project in 1991. The Innocence Project is an academic legal clinic in which law students and faculty review claims of innocence submitted by convicted prisoners, then seek exonerations in those cases that warrant it.
Scheck and Neufeld gave rise to an entire industry aimed at securing exonerations for which damages can later be sought through litigation, sometimes to the tune of several millions of dollars. Each exoneration has the potential to produce a cash windfall for the attorneys on the case, just as it did in 2014 when five convicted Illinois men were awarded $40 million. And, of course, it also produces real-life drama that makes for great news - a sort of Shawshank phenomenon, if you will, that smitten American journalists have become addicted to over the last two decades. Scheck, Neufeld, and their peers have rarely disappointed, and they've used their media momentum to underwrite an aggressive public policy campaign to reform the American criminal justice system as they see fit.
Among the most formidable barriers to this campaign has been forensic science, which has the effect of raising public confidence in the administration of justice. Generally speaking, forensic science has earned tremendous public respect over many decades. Unfortunately for activists who must ultimately deflate public confidence in American justice to advance their reforms and win their exonerations, forensic science has been a thorn in their side.
Peter Neufeld was a member of the National Commission on Forensic Science. In a story published by the Washington Post on April 10, 2017, Neufeld was quoted as saying "the [Justice] department has literally decided to suspend the search for the truth. As a consequence innocent people will languish in prison or, God forbid, could be executed."
Writing for the Post, Spencer Hsu, a frequent mouthpiece for the Innocence Project and the anti-forensic science campaign, sought to buoy Neufeld's remarks by noting that "nearly half of 349 DNA exonerations involved misapplications of forensic science." It is a figure commonly cited by the Innocence Project but one that is so stunningly inaccurate as to be disturbing.
Neufeld's comments in the Washington Post, and the journalistic activism that allowed them to go unchallenged, are indicative of why the National Commission on Forensic Science is now relegated to a historical footnote.
The exoneration of innocent people is an honorable cause. Our criminal justice system is imperfect and sometimes abusive in its treatment of defendants, especially those who are burdened by mental and socioeconomic challenges. But to this day, not a single American journalist has undertaken the daunting task of critically scrutinizing the methods and rhetoric of the Innocence Project nor the many public policy initiatives, including the National Commission on Forensic Science, that were born as a result.
What has not been reported is the impressive advancement of forensic science over the last 40 years, in part due to increased educational standards, more robust quality assurance systems, and the accreditation of laboratories based on the ISO 17025 international standard for testing and calibration laboratories. With over three million cases a year being processed in America's crime laboratories, and despite a painful scarcity of fiscal resources, an impressively small percentage of forensic tests ever result in a serious problem. This is not a revelation, however, that will sell newspapers. What does sell newspapers is portraying every instance of failure, no matter how isolated it may be, as being representative of all work performed by forensic science professionals across the United States.
The National Commission on Forensic Science had potential. There is room for improvement in forensic science and more work needs to be done - and will be done. But the commission was long-ago hijacked by articulate and often combative legal activists who had little interest in helping forensic science. Instead, they used the commission and taxpayer resources to perpetuate a myth that forensic science is fraudulent and void of scientific validity. And, God only knows, if forensic science is unreliable, what else must be wrong with the American criminal justice system?
It is the perfect narrative upon which to build a multi-million dollar exoneration industry, which has now lost one of its greatest assets - the National Commission on Forensic Science.