On February 3, Judge Harry T. Edwards, a long-time professor at the NYU School of Law, gave the opening address at the inaugural meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science.
The commission was established by the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission will also work to develop policy recommendations, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.
Edwards served as the co-chair of the Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community at the National Academy of Sciences. On February 18, 2009, the committee published a widely hailed study reporting serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calling for major reforms and new research.
In his speech to the commission, Edwards contended that “judicial review, by itself, will not cure the infirmities of the forensic community…. The burden falls on the scientific community to get this done.” He explained that, “absent meaningful action by scientists and forensic analysts, the courts will continue to admit forensic evidence in criminal trials, without regard to its scientific validity and reliability. Why? Because precedent supports this practice.” He maintained that “the only way that the courts will be able to move beyond this precedent is if forensic practitioners own up to the limitations of their disciplines and real science is brought to bear in assessing whether and how those limitations can be overcome.” The judge also pointed out that, “apart from being bound by precedent, the judicial system is encumbered by judges and lawyers who generally lack the scientific expertise necessary to comprehend and evaluate forensic evidence in an informed manner. And the judicial system embodies a case-by-case adjudicatory approach that is not well suited to address the systematic problems in many of the forensic disciplines. Given these realities, there is a tremendous need for the forensic community to improve.” In concluding, Edwards said that he “has heard some cynical observers suggest that the commission has been established simply to placate the many people in this country who have decried the absence of meaningful reform in the forensic community. These cynics do not believe that anything will come of this venture. I hope they are wrong.”
Edwards is currently a senior circuit judge and chief judge emeritus on the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in Washington, DC. He has been a member of the NYU School of Law faculty since 1990.
Posted on February 4, 2014