On January 13, 2021, the Trump administration’s outgoing Department of Justice issued an unsigned, unattributed, and unverifiable statement that criticized—but offered no substantive, scientific response to—a 2016 report from an expert presidential scientific advisory committee that identified serious flaws in forensic techniques that were not rooted in sound scientific principles.
The report was released in September 2016 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology after reviewing 2,000 studies and input from experts. It noted the strengths and weaknesses associated with DNA, fingerprint, and firearm analysis, and further concluded that some techniques, like footprint and bitemark analysis, are severely flawed. The report also recommended a set of scientific standards to determine and improve the validity and reliability of forensic techniques.
DOJ’s unsigned statement in response to the 2016 report failed to acknowledge the need for improvement in the field and did not offer any scientifically based alternative approach to the report’s recommendations. Instead, it attempted to undermine the findings of the report by criticizing its terminology and fixating on a few inconsequential citations.
The inaccurate Trump-era statement not only violates the Information Quality Act by disseminating inaccurate and biased information to the public; it is a highly influential Justice Department document that risks misleading prosecutors and judges across the country about the best available science on forensic techniques. The DOJ statement and its accompanying press release make clear the Department intended for the statement to affect courts’ use of the 2016 forensic science report to evaluate expert witness testimony. Although it has only been published for four months, the statement has been cited by prosecutors in at least five criminal cases in the U.S. So long as it remains published, it will likely continue to be referenced in court and could become enshrined in precedent.
The statement risks causing a miscarriage of justice through the conviction of innocent people based on faulty evidence. The continued use of flawed forensic techniques in court has serious, real-world ramifications: about a quarter of the 2,800+ cases in the National Registry of Exonerations, for instance, involved flawed forensic evidence. DOJ’s statement is also inconsistent with President Biden’s scientific integrity memo, which seeks to ensure federal policy is “guided by the best available science” and that scientific debate is represented fairly and accurately.
We sent the Department of Justice a letter, on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, demanding a swift retraction of the misleading Trump-era statement.
Our Request for Correction of Information was sent on June 24, 2021 to the Department of Justice, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. We’re calling on the Department to retract the misleading statement in full within 120 days.