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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Texas Forensic Science Commission - Forensic Science Seminar

Jessica R. Alexander, J.D., M.L.S., Reference Librarian

The Texas Forensic Science Commission  was created by HB 1068 in the 2005 Texas Legislative Session. This Forensic Science Seminar,  June 4 - 5, 2012, unlike most continuing legal education events, brings together DNA and arson experts, arson investigators, medical examiners, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, medical doctors and civil rights activists, to make scientific evidence used in the legal system more reliable.

The two big areas of forensics that are familiar to most are arson investigation and DNA analysis. In Texas, the Todd Willingham case is an example; he was executed for the deaths of two children, when it now appears that the suspect fire was accidental.  Faulty arson investigation is blamed.  It is also now apparent that post-conviction DNA analysis reveals that a significant number of people have been wrongfully convicted due to faulty forensic testimony to juries.

But forensics includes more than just arson and DNA analysis.  The federal government has sponsored a report called Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report's author is Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, National Research Council. It is commonly referred to as the NAS Report.

A paragraph from the report tells us forensic science encompasses:

...a broad range of forensic disciplines, each with its own set of technologies and practices. In other words, there is wide variability across forensic science disciplines with regard to techniques, methodologies, reliability, types and numbers of potential errors,research, general acceptability, and published material. Some of the forensic science disciplines are laboratory based (e.g., nuclear and mitochondrial DNA analysis, toxicology and drug analysis); others are based on expert interpretation of observed patterns (e.g., fingerprints, writing samples, toolmarks, bite marks, and specimens such as hair). The “forensic science community,” in turn, consists of a host of practitioners, including scientists (some with advanced degrees) in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and medicine; laboratory technicians; crime scene investigators; and law enforcement officers. There are very important differences, however, between forensic laboratory work and crime scene investigations. There are also sharp distinctions between forensic practitioners who have been trained in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and medicine (and who bring these disciplines to bear in their work) and technicians who lend support to forensic science enterprises. Many of these differences are discussed in the body of this report.