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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
equally good, because the true value of the evidence is determined by the quality of the latent fingerprint image. These disparities between and within the forensic science disciplines highlight a major problem in the forensic science community: The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity. This is a serious problem. Although research has been done in some disciplines, there is a notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods.7
The Need for Research to Establish Limits and Measures of Performance
In evaluating the accuracy of a forensic analysis, it is crucial to clarify the type of question the analysis is called on to address. Thus, although some techniques may be too imprecise to permit accurate identification of a specific individual, they may still provide useful and accurate information about questions of classification. For example, microscopic hair analysis may provide reliable evidence on some characteristics of the individual from which the specimen was taken, but it may not be able to reliably match the specimen with a specific individual. However, the definition of the appropriate question is only a first step in the evaluation of the performance of a forensic technique. A body of research is required to establish the limits and measures of performance and to address the impact of sources of variability and potential bias. Such research is sorely needed, but it seems to be lacking in most of the forensic disciplines that rely on subjective assessments of matching characteristics. These disciplines need to develop rigorous protocols to guide these subjective interpretations and pursue equally rigorous research and evaluation programs. The development of such research programs can benefit significantly from other areas, notably from the large body of research on the evaluation of observer performance in diagnostic medicine and from the findings of cognitive psychology on the potential for bias and error in human observers.8
Several articles, for example, have noted the lack of scientific validation of fingerprint identification methods. See, e.g., J.J. Koehler. Fingerprint error rates and proficiency tests: What they are and why they matter. 59 HASTINGS L.J. 1077 (2008); L. Haber and R.N. Haber. 2008. Scientific validation of fingerprint evidence under Daubert. Law, Probability and Risk 7(2):87; J.L. Mnookin. 2008. The validity of latent fingerprint identification: Confessions of a fingerprinting moderate. Law, Probability and Risk 7(2):127.
The findings of forensic science experts are vulnerable to cognitive and contextual bias. See, e.g., I.E. Dror, D. Charlton, and A.E. Péron. 2006. Contextual information renders experts vulnerable to making erroneous identifications. Forensic Science International 156:74, 77. (“Our study shows that it is possible to alter identification decisions on the same fingerprint, solely by presenting it in a different context.”); I.E. Dror and D. Charlton. 2006. Why experts make errors. Journal of Forensic Identification 56(4):600; Giannelli, supra note 6, pp. 220-222. Unfortunately, at least to date, there is no good evidence to indicate that the forensic