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Forensic Science on Trial: Part II

In Part I, ScienceInsider interviewed a fire investigator on the topic of arson and forensic science in the United States, an issue brought to the forefront by the controversial execution of Todd Willingham in Texas in 2004. Now we conducted an email interview with a member of the landmark National Research Council panel which in February found "a tremendous need for the forensic science community to get better." Jay Siegel is the director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Q: How did the flaws laid out in the Willingham case reflect on larger issues about forensic science in the United States?

J.S.: First, it is necessary to distinguish what happened in the Willingham case from the practice of forensic science in the U.S. as explored by the National Academy of Sciences [NAS] Committee that looked at forensic science. The problems with the Willingham case arose from inadequate training and experience of the fire scene investigators. ... The issues that the NAS Committee dealt with concerned the status of laboratory forensic science rather than crime scene investigation. Although CSI should be more scientifically based and should fall within the purview of forensic science, it is generally considered to be part of the law enforcement process. Crime scene investigation training stresses observation and data collection but not critical thinking and scientific analysis. This is what leads to the tragic outcome in the Willingham case.

Q: What impact has the Innocence Project had on the issue?

J.S.: There is no doubt that the Innocence Project(s) around the country have had a major effect on law enforcement, forensic science and the judicial system. They have called attention to the frailties in our criminal justice system, especially with respect to the death penalty debate. The Willingham case appears to be our worst nightmare come true; a man who may very well have been innocent, has been put to death. This case requires that states and the Federal judiciary carefully examine the adjudicative system that permits this to happen. By their own count, the Innocence Project’s activities have resulted in the exoneration of more than 240 convicted people. More than a dozen were on death row.

Certainly the development of DNA typing has had a major effect on the efforts of the Innocence Project. Most of the exonerations have come about because of post-conviction DNA testing. The Innocence Project attorneys claim that a large percentage of these wrongful convictions came about in the first place because of improper analysis and/or testimony by forensic scientists. Although the magnitude of this contribution is hotly contested by elements of the forensic science community, it is part of the reason why the NAS Committee was convened to examine forensic science.

Q: If the Academies' recommendations had been in place might Willingham still be alive?

J.S.: It is possible. The NAS Committee did not devote much attention to crime scene investigation including fire investigation. It was more concerned with the overall infrastructure of forensic science and laboratory science practices. The Committee’s recommendations did call for much better funding of research, education and training in forensic science. There is little doubt that more of these activities would better inform the entire field of law enforcement including crime scene investigation, infusing it with a badly needed dose of science. This would, perforce, improve the quality of fire investigations and make the investigators’ conclusions more reliable.

Q: Since the NAS panel came out with its recommendations have any of them been picked up by policymakers?

J.S.: Not yet. There have been several hearings in the Congress, mainly in the Senate, on the findings of the NAS Committee on forensic science. There is lots of activity in the Congress that will determine the best ways to implement as many of the thirteen recommendations as are possible financially and politically. The chief benefit of the report thus far is that a robust debate has begun on forensic science in general and the recommendations in particular. Congress seems to be very serious about curing some of the most serious ills in forensic science and will hopefully provide badly needed funding to improve research, education and quality of services.