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Arturo Casadevall has zero training in forensic science—the techniques used in law enforcement and the courtroom to link individuals to crimes. For most of his career, the microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, paid the discipline little attention, but he did notice the field-shaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which found that many forensic techniques, from fingerprint comparisons to bloodstain pattern analysis, lacked a firm scientific footing. “I remember reading [NAS] about this and I said, ‘Oh my God, I thought fingerprints had been validated,’” he remembers.
He would soon play a direct role in the field’s reform, as one of a handful of basic researchers invited to serve alongside lawyers, judges, and forensic practitioners on a panel, created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to advise DOJ on how to respond to the NAS report’s concerns. Since its founding in 2013, the panel has published 43 documents and made 20 official recommendations to the attorney general, including a call for the universal accreditation of forensic practitioners and for the phasing out of the meaningless phrase “reasonable scientific certainty” that is common in courtrooms.
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Last week, Casadevall and five other scientific members of the commission wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and acting National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Kent Rochford asking them to renew the group’s charter, set to run out 23 April. Instead, Sessions and DOJ announced on Monday that the charter would be allowed to expire, and requests proposals for a new advisory committee or an office within DOJ that would advance forensic science—a move many fear will exclude mainstream scientific views from future policy decisions.
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Casadevall spoke to ScienceInsider...
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