The Innocence Project—aimed at vindicating the wrongfully convicted—asked researchers at the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this week to help improve forensic science techniques.
“It’s still a Wild Wild West out there in forensic science,” attorney Justin McShane, who works with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and serves as co-chair of the ACS Division of Chemistry and the Law, told Nature. Despite efforts to improve the practice and application of forensic methods, including a 2009 report by the US National Research Council and a bill currently in the US Congress, major concerns remain about the field’s reliability and accuracy.
According to Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, forensic science is a major part of many of the cases the project investigates, having used DNA evidence to free close to 300 imprisoned people. In addition to supporting the bill in Congress, he called on the chemists at the meeting to “make forensic science more about science and less about law enforcement.”
Neufeld is not alone in his concerns. At the meeting, Boise State University geneticist Greg Hampikian, director of the Idaho Innocence Project, admitted to nightmares about the flaws in forensic investigations that can lead to false verdicts, such as the convictions of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito that were overturned in 2011 due to possible contamination of DNA evidence. And Frederick Whitehurst, a chemist and former investigator for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that the underlying bias in the system—resulting from the pressure on crime-lab techs to support the police or prosecutor suspicions—is compounding the problem.
As scientists develop more sensitive techniques to detect ever smaller amounts of DNA, Whitehurst added, contamination concerns are only going to go up.
Also at the meeting, convicted-then-freed felon Ray Krone, who spend 10 years in prison for murder before DNA testing proved his innocence, said: “I had never been in trouble in my life. They put me on death row. This could happen to you. I'm calling on the ACS to get more involved in forensic science.”