Jennifer L. Mnookin, Vice Dean for Faculty and Research and Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, delivered the Ira M. Belfer Lecture on April 7. Her talk, “The Future of Forensic Science,” discussed the systemic shortcomings of forensic evidence and the steps the legal and scientific communities must take to justify its admission in the courtroom.
Traditional forensic science techniques – such as latent fingerprint evidence, handwriting identification evidence, and ballistics evidence – have increasingly been challenged as lacking a rigorous empirical foundation or an adequate scientific basis. Another concern is that expert testimony with respect to such evidence can be frequently both overstated and unproven. Courts have often resorted to dramatic doctrinal legerdemain in their rejection of these challenges, and academics and institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences have joined the debate. Recent scandals involving fingerprints, such as the FBI’s incorrect identification of a man wrongly linked to a train bombing in Madrid and the LAPD’s erroneous identification of suspects, show that these concerns are not merely theoretical or academic.
Mnookin first discussed the current state of forensic science, focusing on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), which requires that the conclusions set forth in expert testimony be derived from scientific knowledge to be considered reliable. Mnookin said that Daubert should really be about testing, arguing that the key index of reliability for the forensic sciences is that they be tested.
Mnookin also discussed the recently released report by the National Academy of Sciences that outlined the many problems of the forensic sciences disciplines. The Academy ultimately recommended the creation of an independent federal agency to regulate, supervise, and improve them by funding research, establishing and developing best practices, and generally supporting and overseeing the forensic science community.
While Mnookin dubbed this “the report’s boldest and most important recommendation,” she also recognized an important absence: Improving forensic science requires new developments not only institutionally and legislatively, but also in the judicial realm. Realization of these changes, she concluded, will depend in large part on whether or not judges are prepared to evaluate forensic sciences “with their eyes wide open and their heads out of the sand.”
The Belfer Lecture is made possible by the generosity of Dr. Myron L. Belfer, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School Department of Social Medicine. It honors his father, Ira M. Belfer, Brooklyn Law School Class of 1933, who was a leading practitioner of corporate, real estate, and trust and estates law for over half a century. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees, and a generous benefactor to the Law School. This year’s Belfer Lecture was held in honor of Margaret Berger, Brooklyn Law School Trustee Professor of Law, who retired from teaching full-time last year. Professor Edward Cheng, a scholar in the area of scientific evidence organized the event.