Justice News

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences
Seattle, WA
United States
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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Remarks as prepared for delivery. 

 

Thank you, Nikolas, for that kind introduction.  I am honored to address the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at its 70th annual meeting.  This is a highly respected organization, with 11 different sections and nearly 7,000 members.  You have an enormous diversity of professional backgrounds, skills, and experience.  Your ranks include researchers, forensic scientists, and even criminal litigators.  You study forensic science, you practice forensic science, and you are patrons of forensic science.

In those ways, this Academy and the Department of Justice have much in common.  At the Department, we study forensic science in our research labs.  We practice forensic science in our crime labs.  And we are patrons of forensic science in the tens of thousands of cases we investigate and prosecute each year.

The Department relies on forensic science to carry out its mission, and we strive to set a standard of excellence, as you do. I am inspired by the work of the forensic scientists I have met, by the expertise they bring to the job, and by their dedication to determining the truth and achieving justice through the practice of science. 

The value of your work is illustrated by a case that arose during the Martin Luther King parade seven years ago in Spokane, not far from here. Alert city workers found an abandoned backpack on the parade route.  Out of an abundance of caution, they diverted the parade and called in the Spokane Police Department and Sheriff’s Office.  Investigators discovered that the backpack was an improvised explosive device.  The bomb squad disarmed the device.  Their quick work preserved critical evidence, including 128 fishing weights that would have served as projectiles.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Spokane immediately began an investigation.  Task force members canvassed the region for batteries and other components like those used to make the bomb.  They sent the device to the FBI crime lab for detailed examination, along with other evidence obtained from multiple searches.

FBI examiners worked to extract DNA from the backpack.  Other examiners developed pattern, trace, and chemical evidence from the device.  They found that the fishing weights were coated with rat poison and feces.  The would-be bomber planned to maximize the damage to his victims.

Within a month, FBI investigators found that a local store had recently made three sales of large quantities of the fishing weights used in the bomb.  The store’s records revealed that two of those purchases were made with cash.  The third purchase was made with the credit card of a man named Kevin Harpham.  FBI investigators soon discovered Harpham’s connections to a white supremacist group.  

FBI forensic examiners matched the DNA from the backpack to Harpham.  The FBI also matched fourteen toolmarks on parts of the device to a crimping tool recovered in a search of Harpham’s property.  

Suspecting that Harpham would be heavily armed, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team devised a ruse to lure him out of his home.  As agents suspected, Harpham was armed.  Fortunately, he was safely taken into custody. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve 32 years in federal prison.

In that case, the system worked exactly as intended, and tragedy was averted.  It demonstrates the value of a coordinated law enforcement approach, and the critical importance of forensic science in the fight against crime.

President Trump ordered the Department of Justice to reduce crime, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it the Department’s top priority to achieve that goal.  Forensic science, used appropriately, will help us accomplish our mission.

I have worked in federal law enforcement for more than 27 years.  I understand the critical role that forensic science plays in our criminal justice system.  And as Deputy Attorney General, I have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the role of forensic science in the search for truth.

For that reason, I am pleased to share with you today what the Department of Justice is doing to increase our capacity to analyze evidence, improve coordination with stakeholders, and advance the reliability of forensic science.

Science and law are two of the most influential professions in America.  They have a long partnership, born of mutual interest and necessity.  They share core values of accuracy, consistency, stability, and transparency.  They both rely on rigorous thought and principled action.  And they both count on the integrity of their people and their processes to inspire confidence in their outcomes – whether that is a test result or a legal ruling.

Last April, the Department announced that it would undertake a “Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories.”  The purpose of the project is to examine the workload of America’s public crime labs, and evaluate personnel, equipment, and training needs. The assessment will include a report to Congress this fall. 

Over the last 6 months, we have held many listening sessions with forensic science stakeholders, and we scheduled more sessions here, this week.  We focus on identifying the most urgent needs facing the forensic community, and considering possible solutions. We meet with lab directors, bench scientists, and investigators.  We also meet with forensic associations, societies, and organizations.

I want to share with you three important things we have already learned.  

First, we learned more about the people who work in your field.  The expertise, commitment, and passion that forensic scientists bring to their jobs every day is truly inspiring.  Most of you work in state and local labs with small budgets and big caseloads.  You care deeply about your work and its impact on public health, safety, and trust in the criminal justice system.  You also have a wealth of knowledge about the needs in your field and are eager to share ideas with us. Each session reveals important insights about the challenges you face, and promising solutions.

The second thing we are learning is that common themes cut across forensic disciplines, and professional specialties.  The opioid epidemic and the rise in violent crime increase the strain on an already over-taxed system — with crime labs, medical examiners, and forensic toxicologists bearing the brunt of the surge.

The forensic community has been stressed by an increased demand for services, rising case backlogs, and requests for quicker turnaround times. Funding, personnel, training, and equipment needs sometimes have failed to keep pace with new demands.  In light of these challenges, we are exploring new ways to increase testing capacities and decrease backlogs.  We are also looking at ways to increase casework efficiencies with new technologies and systems-based strategies.

We want our report to Congress to correctly reflect the thoughts of our state, local, and tribal partners.  We expect the report to highlight new ways to address old challenges; to identify promising new practices; and to strengthen the field of forensic science as we move forward.

The third thing we have learned is that the future of forensic science holds great promise.  Interest in the field remains strong, innovative research and development is flourishing, and revolutionary technologies are on the verge of becoming reality. 

The Department strongly supports forensic research, development, and innovation.  Our listening sessions have given us a better understanding of the current and future technology needs of the forensic community. 

We scheduled two additional listening sessions this week in Seattle. I want to thank the Academy for its assistance in arranging these sessions.

We are also enhancing our coordination and collaboration with our federal partners. Strong partnerships decrease duplication of effort and increase efficiencies in the fight against crime.  As a step to promote strong partnerships, I am pleased to announce today that we are reviving the Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors, with a new charter and a mandate to continually improve our forensic work. 

The Council is the only federal interagency working group solely focused on forensic science.  It includes representatives from the Department of Justice and other Executive Branch agencies with forensic science labs.  The Council will spot trends, share intelligence, identify research needs, and focus on collaborative ways to use forensic science in the fight against crime.  The new Council reports directly to the Deputy Attorney General and includes designated staff to support the mission.  We look forward to working with our federal partners on the Council.

Finally, I want to turn to the Department’s commitment to the reliable use of forensic science.  Reliable forensic evidence is the result of responsible forensic practice.  Responsible forensic practice requires an understanding of forensic methods and the evidence examined. 

Like all applied sciences, forensic science relies in part on human interpretation and judgment, which lead to an expert’s conclusion.  Once the conclusion is formed, it must be carefully expressed in words—in both forensic reports and trial testimony.  Those words must correctly convey both the significance and the limitations of that conclusion.

Last August, I announced that the Department would develop Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports.  The language will set the appropriate scientific boundaries for expert conclusions offered by Department examiners in lab reports and testimony. Our goal is to make sure that our experts properly articulate their conclusions so that judges and juries fully understand them.

Today I am pleased to announce that we are implementing Uniform Language for the latent print discipline.  This is the first approved Uniform Language document.  It specifies the appropriate range of conclusions that Department examiners may provide about latent print examinations.  It also includes important scientific limitations on those conclusions and other testimonial statements. 

The document was peer-reviewed by experts outside of the Department, and their comments helped inform the approved language.   In addition to forensic practitioners, we expect that lawyers and judges will closely review the Uniform Language to better understand the proper scope and basis for our expert conclusions.

In addition to Uniform Language, I announced last summer that we would develop and implement a program to monitor the courtroom testimony of Department examiners.  Today, I am pleased to announce that we have issued guidance to our forensic labs and digital analysis entities for establishing testimony-monitoring policies.  The Department will implement robust testimony monitoring programs to help ensure that our examiners testify consistent with current scientific principles.  

As forensic science evolves over time, so too must the Uniform Language. We realize that scientific knowledge must be constantly advanced by those who seek the truth.  As our knowledge of nature advances, the writings that reflect our current state of that knowledge need to change.

The Department therefore supports ongoing practitioner led efforts to develop consensus-based and scientifically sound documentary standards.  Each of our approved Uniform Language documents will be reviewed regularly to confirm that they reflect current scientific knowledge and best practices. 

The Uniform Language and the testimony monitoring programs are additional measures to help ensure that our examiners correctly state and correctly qualify their expert opinions in reports and testimony.  The new measures will advance the practice of reliable and responsible forensic science in federal courts.

In addition to reliability, another core value shared by both science and the law is the importance of transparency about the decision making process.  Transparency enables greater understanding, guides conduct, and promotes accountability.  Most importantly, it helps maintain public trust in our legal and scientific institutions. 

For those reasons, in the coming months, the Department’s forensic crime labs will complete the process of posting their current quality management system documents online.  The postings will include laboratory policies, procedures and protocols, and existing summaries of internal validation studies.

Our forensic labs seek to establish and meet the highest standards of quality and accountability.  That commitment is reflected in our people, our practices, and the sound scientific work they produce every day.  As a leader in the field of forensic science, the Department is committed to leading by example.  That includes sharing our forensic policies and procedures with all interested parties to advance the cause of quality forensic practice.

Those documents will be available to forensic examiners, legal practitioners, and the general public.  Online access allows for the study, use, and adaptation of Department policies and procedures by other labs.  It also allows judges and attorneys to better understand how our results are produced for courtroom use, including the many levels and layers of quality control that are so critical to that truth seeking function. 

Placing our policies and procedures online promotes greater understanding about the scientific side of our criminal justice system.  Open access to high quality forensic standards promotes greater confidence in the scientific process and its outcomes.  That confidence, in turn, promotes greater respect for the rule of law.

I want to leave you with a few final thoughts about the search for truth.  We are privileged to live in a country where forensic scientists are free to seek the truth no matter where it may lead. As Winston Churchill said, “[t]he truth is incontrovertible.  Malice may attack it and ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

One of the most prominent forensic scientists in the first half of the twentieth century lived here in Seattle. Luke May dedicated his career to using forensics to solve crimes and to search for the truth.  He was sometimes referred to as “America’s Sherlock Holmes.”  May operated a private forensic laboratory, and he investigated cases for both law enforcement and defendants.  Near the end of his life, he received an award with an inscription that read:

Some seek truth for convenience;
some for recognition;
few have sought it so diligently
for so many years
to prove equally innocence or guilt

Luke May’s unbiased search for truth might be unusual in some professions, but it is not in yours and mine.  More often than not, the search for the truth is not easy. It does not make you rich, and it rarely makes you famous.

In a world that is sometimes buried in a blizzard of conflicting opinions cast as facts, it is easy to fall prey to confirmation bias. But people who seek the truth always remain open to the possibility that it may not match anyone’s preconceptions. Fair-minded investigators must never reach a conclusion first and ignore contradictory facts.

President John Adams wisely observed that “[f]acts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the evidence.”

Many people passionately believe things that just are not true. In the words of a 19th century Philadelphia doctor, “sincerity of belief is not the test of truth.”

Pursuing truth means always yielding to credible evidence, even if it runs contrary to our hopes and expectations.

Your Academy’s mission statement is “to advance science and its application to the legal system.”

The policies that I am announcing today will advance the Justice Department’s commitment to reliable science that helps us to find and report the truth. 

I am honored to be here today in a room filled with people who share that goal.

Thank you for your commitment to justice.

Updated February 21, 2018