Boston Doctor Chosen For New National Effort To Reform Forensic Testing
With the Massachusetts Inspector General expected to release his report on the state drug lab crisis any day now, a local doctor is part of a new national effort to reform forensic testing.
Dr. Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, was recently named to the newly created National Commission on Forensic Science. The commission will make recommendations to the Justice Department about how to handle a number of issues, including what training should be required of lab chemists and what national standards might be adopted for all forensic evidence used in the criminal justice system.
Bieber spoke with WBUR’s Deborah Becker shortly after the commission held its first meeting.
Frederick Bieber: It’s important that your listeners understand that the comments that I’ll make are my own personal opinions, and they do not speak for the commission as a whole or for any other agency that I’m affiliated with.
Deborah Becker: What’s the biggest issue, do you think, facing forensic science and forensic testing right now? If this commission could address just one thing, and you hope that you can get agreement on it and get momentum on it moving forward, what would it be?
Well, I can’t choose just one. Don’t make me do that. It’s like going into a candy store. I think the credentialing of individuals is really important. It’s a sad reality that our plumbers, lawyers, doctors and cosmetologists have more licensing than forensic individuals. Very few individuals who work in crime labs are actually certified, as provided by the example of Annie Dookhan, where she claimed to have an earned masters degree when in fact she didn’t. So this is a big job that I don’t think will see the light at the end of the tunnel for a number of years.
Certainly, what we’ve learned here because of the scandal, and as a reporter what I’ve learned is that there is sort of no national accrediting system for any of these labs. There’s no uniform set of guidelines by which these labs operate.
Fortunately our two crime labs here in Massachusetts — the State Police crime lab and the Boston Police crime lab — have been duly accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.
But the process — no one says, “You must be accredited in such and such a way to be able to do this testing.”
True enough. And while there is a very well-respected group, the American Board of Criminalistics, I think you could count on one hand, maybe two, the number of individuals in a given state that are actually certified.
Aside from this national commission, you’ve prepared written testimony for potential changes on the state level that would provide greater oversight for forensic testing. What did your written testimony say? Do you think we also need to make changes on a state level?
I have urged the two senators to revise their bill, so that among other things, the director of the State Police forensic sciences group would have a direct reporting line to the undersecretary of public safety at the Executive Office of Public Safety.
So someone in the executive branch sort of overseeing?
Do you think that there is an inherent conflict of interest if law enforcement oversees the forensic testing?
I can tell you that there are many, many honest and careful, hardworking scientists in all of these agencies and they have no so-called dog in the fight. That said, there is something that’s been referred to as the “CSI effect,” where many individuals, I think, unfortunately, who work in crime labs that are run completely by law enforcement may have this idea that their work as scientists goes beyond the science, but that their job may be to help prevail in the adversarial court system — that is, their job is to help get a conviction.
All of these activities — the forensic testing, the court testimony — when improved, will increase the ability of law enforcement to correctly identify those who have committed serious crimes, allow juries to deliberate and reach better verdicts, and more importantly, protect the innocent from being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. We have to remember that erroneous convictions, regardless of their cause, deprive citizens of liberty and sometimes potentially even their life. But they also allow the true criminals to remain free to re-offend. Therefore, having the best crime labs and the best forensic testing really is crucial to a fair and open justice system.