Attorney General Jeff Sessions is putting a halt to both independent and internal Justice Department work designed to improve the reliability of police testimony.
Sessions announced Monday that he would end the federally-funded National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS). The Department also said the same day that it would “suspend” a broad review of FBI crime scene analysis techniques, according to The Washington Post.
In justifying his decisions, Sessions leaned heavy on federalist language, saying: “the vast majority of forensic science is practiced by state and local forensic laboratories and is used by state and local prosecutors.”
The review had been ordered in February 2016 by Sally Yates, then the Deputy Attorney General. Yates had called for audits of FBI analyses of gun ballistics, footprints, “fibres, soil and other crime-scene evidence,” as the Post noted at the time.
Bureau officials had themselves launched a review of forensic hair analysis just months before, in 2015. They announced the initiative after admitting that almost every expert on an elite team had overstated the quality of their evidence for two decades, before the turn of the century.
The NCFS, meanwhile, was established in 2013, at the start of President Obama’s second term. Its charter expires on April 23. The commission is expected to issue a report on scientific improvements to existing forensic practices by law enforcement.
“This Commission’s existence is an indispensable way for the DOJ to communicate its commitment to high quality and rigorous forensic science,” six members said in a recent letter to Sessions, calling on him to extend their work.
“We believe that the Commission’s charter must be renewed for the forensic science community to realize the benefits of the work that has been initiated,” they added.
A group advancing the interest of prosecutors, however, decried the existence of the commission. The National District Attorneys Association called the NCFS “a think-tank,” describing it as a waste of money, according to the Post.
In place of the commission, Sessions will appoint an adviser “to interface with forensic science stakeholders and advise Department leadership.”
The announcement was described as insufficient by two NCFS members. Federal District Judge Jed Rakoff told the Post that “entities centered solely within the Department of Justice” lack scientific credibility. Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld said that Sessions “has literally decided to suspend the search for the truth.”
The Innocence Project was one of two groups that forced the FBI into admitting its hair analysis flaws. The law enforcement accountability group, alongside the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, had conducted a study that exposed the systemic errors.
The cases studied by the two organizations included those in which 32 defendants received death sentences. “Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison,” the Post noted Monday.