WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is reviewing forensic sciences practiced by the FBI to ensure that experts are not overstating their findings against criminal defendants, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said Wednesday.
The review will look at whether other scientific disciplines have been tainted by flawed testimony, a problem that surfaced last year when the Justice Department revealed that experts had overstated the strength of their evidence in many older cases dating back decades involving microscopic hair analysis.
Yates said the inquiry wasn't inspired by specific concerns about other disciplines, but described it instead as a "quality assurance review" and general good practice.
The review will focus on disciplines that involve a large degree of human interpretation and are therefore susceptible to different opinions, and will be presented at the March meeting of the National Commission of Forensic Science. The FBI, meanwhile, is in the process of finalizing standards for testimony and reporting.
"We believe that this type of review will help ensure the public's ongoing confidence in the work we do, and put the entire field on stronger footing in the future," Yates said at a Las Vegas meeting hosted by the American Academy of Forensic Science.
The announcement from Yates comes 10 months after the Justice Department and FBI pledged a review of laboratory protocols and procedures following the discovery of flawed forensics testimony in hundreds of older criminal cases involving microscopic hair analysis. That review of lab examiners' testimony found errors relating to hair analysis in at least 90 percent of trial transcripts and covered a period before 2000.
Yates said that the FBI has improved its practices since the late 1990s by using more reliable mitochondrial DNA hair analysis in addition to microscopic hair analysis.
"But," she added, "these changes do not negate the need for us to think carefully about what we can do better in the future."
Organizations that advocate for criminal defendants praised the Justice Department's announcement.
"This is the start of a significant change in the quality of forensic evidence introduced in criminal trials," E.G. "Gerry" Morris, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in a statement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the Justice Department for "taking responsibility and launching a full review so that the public can learn exactly what went wrong and how we can prevent this from ever happening again. Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system worthy of its name."