Justice News

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Delivers Remarks at the National Commission on Forensic Science Meeting
United States
Monday, February 3, 2014

Thank you, Karol. 

So, we finally made it.  I am honored to welcome everyone to the inaugural meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science.  It is great to see all of you here, together. 

I would like to start by thanking the Commissioners for generously volunteering your time and expertise to this Commission.  Among us, we have a Nobel Laureate; a Medal of Science Winner; professors of chemistry, pathology, physics, sociology, statistics, and law; Federal, State, and Local forensic science service providers; prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges; law enforcement officials; and victims and defendants’ rights advocates seated around this table.  Each and every one of you was selected out of hundreds of applicants for the unique and necessary perspective that you bring to this issue.  We are grateful for your willingness to work collaboratively to enhance the quality and reliability of forensic science in the United States. 

While we join this table from different perspectives, we are all united by a common goal of justice.  We all recognize that scientifically valid and accurate forensic analysis strengthens all aspects of our justice system.   Thanks to the tireless work of federal, state, and local leaders, there has been meaningful and measurable progress in advancing science and its application to the legal system.  Most of us in this room have witnessed, firsthand, how forensic analysis can provide powerful and vital tools to identify perpetrators, free others from suspicion, to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. 

But with great power comes great responsibility.  As our capabilities expand, we must also develop our understanding of the foundations and limitations of each technique.  We must always be vigilant to not overstate the significance of what we know.

  And we must constantly strive to learn more and seek to improve forensic science.  To do this, the Justice Department and NIST have joined forces.  Together, we have created an initiative that aims to coordinate standards setting in the forensic sciences, reduce fragmentation, and bring together key stakeholders — at every level — to advise the Attorney General on forensic science policy.

Let me provide you with a brief background on how we arrived here today and how our work all fits together.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a groundbreaking report titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States,” which articulated the challenges and opportunities facing this field.  Judge Harry Edwards co-chaired the committee that authored the report, and we are delighted to welcome him this afternoon to share the National Research Council’s recommendations and his advice to this Commission.  We have also asked the Bureau of Justice Statistics to put these recommendations in perspective by sharing their Census of Publicly Funded Crime Laboratories.

Recognizing the impact of the National Academies’ analysis and recommendations, the White House National Science and Technology Council established a Subcommittee on Forensic Science.  This three-and-a-half year interagency process brought together federal, state, and local stakeholders to expand upon and drill down into the practical implications of efforts to improve forensic science. 

Later this afternoon, Chairs of the Subcommittee’s Interagency Working Groups will present overviews of the information they assembled concerning accreditation; proficiency testing; certification; research and development; and standards setting.  

Tomorrow morning, you will be welcomed by Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who will provide an update on the Administration’s efforts to strengthen forensic science.  And NIST will share its ideas for a new framework for supporting the development of robust forensic science standards.

Certainly, given the breadth and depth of expertise around this table, there will be many questions and thoughtful deliberation.  Tomorrow, we look forward to opening the floor for your thoughts on both short and long-term priorities for the Commission.  I encourage you to think creatively about concrete and practical recommendations that can realistically be implemented in forensic laboratories and units across the country.

As you all know, we chartered this Commission to develop national strategies for:

• Strengthening the validity and reliability of the forensic sciences;
• Enhancing quality assurance and quality control;
• Identifying and recommending scientific guidance and protocols; and
• Identifying and assessing other needs of the forensic science communities to strengthen their disciplines and meet the increasing demands generated by the criminal and civil justice systems at all levels of government.

In accomplishing these goals, we look forward to the Commission developing views documents, policy recommendations, and priority recommendations for standards development and areas for future research.

  Practically speaking, in terms of what we expect to happen going forward, we anticipate that when we develop a specific policy recommendation, that recommendation will be forwarded to the Attorney General for his consideration and he will decide whether to endorse the recommendation for implementation in the ATF, DEA, and FBI laboratories.  Upon DOJ adoption, we will strongly encourage other federal, state, and local laboratories or forensic units. 

The fact that we cannot compel other federal, state, and local laboratories and units to adopt this Commission’s guidance does underscore the need to be mindful of the diversity of practice and resources across the country.  We must delicately balance the desire to develop meaningful policy with the reality of limited funding at the federal, state, and local levels.  And we must do so without taking shortcuts. 

We have to think about what recommendations might make the greatest contribution to the field without breaking the bank.  Are our recommendations more expensive than their actual worth?  What policies would improve quality assurance?  What measurement or documentary standards might improve validity and reliability of particular disciplines?  What scientific inquiries might benefit from additional grant funding? 

As your agendas indicate, we will close each day together with an hour of public comment.  While time constraints do not allow us to respond to public comments contemporaneously, I strongly encourage you to read the comments submitted in writing and listen carefully this afternoon.  Many interested stakeholders have travelled great distances to attend this meeting.  They bring valuable insight into both the practical implications of your recommendations and how they will be received by the broader public.

This Commission has a unique opportunity to take a truly holistic approach and strengthen all aspects of forensic science.  In so doing, we preserve the integrity of our justice system and support public safety.  We are looking to the breadth of your collective expertise to craft policies that are realistic and ripe for implementation in federal, state, and local laboratories and courtrooms across the country. 

I now am going to turn the floor over to my Co-Chair, Dr. Pat Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director of NIST. 
 Pat and I look forward to working with you on this important endeavor.

Updated September 17, 2014