In the face of this national scandal, two elected officials have distinguished themselves at the federal level: senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy (a former prosecutor), cosponsors of forensic reform legislation that offers significant improvements. In short, their bill would strengthen federal oversight of crime labs, invest in research into best practices, and provide a training and certification regime. But their bill doesn't go far enough, especially given the federal government's own problems with shoddy forensic science.
The most compelling reform agenda that I've come across was summarized seven years ago by Radley Balko, an investigative journalist with significant experience unmasking shoddy crime-scene analysis, and Roger Koppl, director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University. They focused on a huge conflict of interest at the core of the current system—the fact that forensic lab analysts often work for the police and prosecutors:
One major barrier to improving forensic evidence in criminal trials is that in most jurisdictions, the state has a monopoly on experts. Crime lab analysts and medical examiners (and to a lesser extent DNA technicians) typically work for the government and are generally seen as part of the prosecution's "team," much like the police and investigators. Yes, science is science, and it would be nice to believe that scientists will always get at the truth no matter whom they report to. But studies have consistently shown that even conscientious scientists can be affected by cognitive bias. A scientist whose job performance is evaluated by a senior official in the district attorney or state attorney general's office may feel subtle pressure to return results that produce convictions. In cases in which district attorneys' offices contract work out to private labs, the labs may feel pressure—even if it's not explicit (though sometimes it is)—to produce favorable results in order to continue the relationship.
Indeed, according to Business Insider, "In many jurisdictions, crime labs receive money for each conviction they contribute to, according to a 2013 study in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics. Statutes in Florida and North Carolina mandate that judges provide labs with remuneration “upon conviction” and only upon conviction. Alabama, Arizona, California, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Virginia are among the states with similar provisions."
Five specific reforms that Balko and Koppl urge are as follows:
Forensic counsel for the indigent. In many jurisdictions, indigent defendants aren't given access to their own forensic experts. As a result, the only expert witnesses are often testifying for the prosecution ... This undermines the whole adversarial basis of our criminal-justice system. Indigent defendants should be given vouchers to hire their own experts, who can review the forensic analysis and conclusions of each prosecution expert.
Expert independence. Crime labs, DNA labs, and medical examiners shouldn't serve under the same bureaucracy as district attorneys and police agencies. If these experts must work for the government, they should report to an independent state agency, if not the courts themselves. There should be a wall of separation between analysis and interpretation ... When the same expert performs both the analysis and interpretation, defense experts are often at a disadvantage, having to rely on the notes and photos of the same expert whose testimony they're disputing.
Rivalrous redundancy. Whether the state uses its own labs or contracts out to private labs, evidence should periodically and systematically be sent out to yet another competing lab for verification. The state's labs should be made aware that their work will occasionally be checked but not told when. In addition to helping discover errors that might otherwise go undetected, the introduction of competition to government labs would all but remove any subconscious incentive to appease police and prosecutors and would strengthen the incentive for a more objective analysis.
Statistical analysis. The results from forensic labs should be regularly analyzed for statistical anomalies. Labs producing unusually high match rates should throw up red flags for further examination. For example, in 2004 Houston medical examiner Patricia Moore was found to have diagnosed shaken-baby syndrome in infant autopsies at a rate several times higher than the national average. This led to an investigation—and the reopening of several convictions that had relied on Moore's testimony.
Mask the evidence. A 2006 U.K. study by researchers at the University of Southampton found that the error rate of fingerprint analysts doubled when they were first told the circumstances of the case they were working on. Crime lab technicians and medical examiners should never be permitted to consult with police or prosecutors before performing their analysis. A dramatic child-murder case, for example, may induce a greater subconscious bias to find a match than a burglary case. To the extent that it's possible, evidence should be stripped of all context before being sent to the lab. Ideally, state or city officials might hire a neutral "evidence shepherd," whose job would be to deliver crime-scene evidence to the labs and oversee the process of periodically sending evidence to secondary labs for verification.
As Senator Leahy said when issuing his own call for reform, improving the accuracy and reliability of forensics isn't just a worthy endeavor because it will prevent innocent people from being wrongly convicted and imprisoned—it is "a good investment that will lead to fewer trials and appeals and will reduce crime by ensuring that those who commit serious offenses are promptly captured and convicted."