A Federal Agency Libertarians Could Love:

Reason's Radley Balko supports the creation of a new federal agency, and it might actually be a good idea.

Jon Roland (mail) (www):
My comment on the Reason blog:

From what I've seen of the mixed results of federal standards efforts in other fields, I would not trust a government agency in a field as sensitive as this one. Even federal funding of a private standards organization could improperly influence its development and operation.

What is needed are a few successful lawsuits against bad forensic witnesses that would encourage the funding of one, or preferably more than one, private standards organizations led by prominent scientists who do not themselves appear as witnesses. Let the private sector sort this out. The government can encourage them rhetorically, but otherwise needs to stay out of it.
9.23.2009 11:46am
Mike S.:
There is another problem with any kind of scientific evidence in the court room. In any case turning on scientific evidence, whether forensic or otherwise, at least one party will be trying to exclude scientists from the jury in the hope that that will make it easier for his "expert" to pass off his opinion as fact. If that doesn't change, the problems might be lessened, but major cases will still turn on junk science.
9.23.2009 11:53am
Tim Nuccio (mail) (www):
It appears that what we need are better rules of evidence, not a new government agency.
9.23.2009 12:15pm
first history:
I don't have a problem with the government setting standards, since the real bias issue (as pointed out in the Reason article and this study) is the fact most of the crime labs are connected to either the police or district attorney's offices. Privatizing labs with competitive self-regulation will reduce conflicts of interest and improve the quality of work. Current arrangements subject labs to government cost-cutting and pressure to convict, while private labs can achieve economies of scale by serving multiple jurisdictions and are insulated from individual agency pressure.

As an example of the threat posed by government control of crime labs, the Orange County CA district attorney has a program whereby if you are arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor, you can avoid charges by giving up a DNA sample.

Orange County, which already has one of the nation's most aggressive programs for taking DNA samples from convicts, has quietly begun offering a deal to some people who have only been arrested: give a DNA sample and have your charges dropped.

The district attorney's office, which runs its own database, has started expanding its program by handling some cases "informally," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told the Board of Supervisors this week. In those cases, if a person who has been arrested agrees to give a DNA sample, "we would not even file" charges.

"There'd be no necessity for a guilty plea, and a dismissal, or anything like that," he said. "It's advantageous to the defense, and it's advantageous to us, because we're able to handle more cases with fewer resources."

Rackauckas launched the DNA database in January 2007 with $875,000 approved by the Board of Supervisors. It is one of a small number of databases maintained by local governments separate from the larger databases maintained by states and the FBI.

Critics call such local databases "rogues" because they are not subject to state and federal guidelines designed to prevent DNA profiles from being misused. The Orange County database is even more unusual because it is not run by an accredited crime lab.
[Orange County DA] Rackauckas' decision to expand DNA collection to some people who are merely arrested is an example of why critics are concerned about databases that exist outside the federal system, said UCLA Law School professor Jennifer Mnookin, an expert on the subject.

When DNA collection was established, the state and federal government created limits, and "there was debate and public discussion, to some extent, of when it's appropriate to do this," Mnookin said. "So I'm quite troubled by these so-called rogue databases, where prosecutors are claiming for themselves the power to decide when we ought to be keeping biological samples for people.

"I don't think it should be up to individual prosecutors without broader legislative oversight," she said.

9.23.2009 12:21pm
first history:
And then there is this:

DNA Evidence Can Easily Be Faked

Nucleix, Ltd., a life science company specializing in forensic DNA analysis, announced that its researchers have proven that DNA evidence found at crime scenes can easily be falsified using basic equipment, know-how and access to DNA or a DNA database.

Recognizing the need to safeguard the accuracy and credibility of DNA samples in the field of forensics, Nucleix scientists have developed a novel assay termed "DNA authentication" for combating this form of "biological identity theft" by distinguishing between in-vivo (real) and in-vitro (fake) DNA. These findings and new technology have also been published online in the journal, Forensic Science International: Genetics.

In their paper Nucleix scientists demonstrate that while DNA fingerprinting is considered one of the leading forensic tools in many criminal investigations, DNA evidence can easily be falsified and planted at crime scenes prior to collection by law enforcement officers.
Use of DNA fingerprinting as evidence in criminal proceedings relies on the assumption that the DNA sample is genuine. However, standard molecular biology techniques, such as PCR, molecular cloning and more recently available whole genome amplification, enable anyone with basic equipment and limited know-how to synthesize unlimited amounts of in-vitro DNA with any desired profile. Such fake DNA can easily be incorporated into genuine human tissues (e.g., blood, saliva) or applied to surfaces and planted at crime scenes.

Nucleix's research demonstrates that current forensic procedures cannot distinguish between real and fake DNA evidence. Moreover, Nucleix showed that in vitro synthesized DNA samples that were profiled by a leading independent forensic laboratory were indistinguishable from in vivo-generated or real DNA.
9.23.2009 12:32pm
I'll believe that DA's, judges and the like are serious about applying actual science when they stop any and all use of polygraphs, which is total junk science, and also put much stricter controls on the labs doing drug tests.

I've also seen (watching a friend's travails) the conflict of interest problem with having these labs be associated with the police and DA's. Quite frankly, if I was on a jury, there would have to be a whole lot of supporting data and explaination before I'd accept the results of their work.

Of course, since I'm an engineer, I may not ever get on such a jury.
9.23.2009 12:43pm
Clay Barham (mail) (www):
Wow! Where have the original, libertarian-leaning Democrats from Jefferson to Cleveland gone? All that seems to be left are Marxists who want to bring America back into the Old World fold, where poverty and tyranny are the custom. Read THE CHANGING FACE OF DEMOCRATS from or and find out.
9.23.2009 5:12pm
Cornellian (mail):
I read a remarkable book on statistics and probability recently called "The Drunkard's Walk." The authors note that the probability of human error in DNA testing (getting samples mixed up etc.) is vastly greater than the probability of a false positive in a properly conducted test, so all that expert evidence on the probability of false positives completely misses the boat on where the real risk of error is most likely to be found.
9.24.2009 1:30am

Post as: [Register] [Log In]

Remember info?

If you have a comment about spelling, typos, or format errors, please e-mail the poster directly rather than posting a comment.

Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.